Hepatitis C rates ballooning among young IV drug users

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Rates of newly reported hepatitis C increased significantly among young people between 2007 and 2015, according to California's public health department. Over that period, rates shot up 55 percent among young men ages 20 to 29 and 37 percent among young women in the same age group. The department says IV drug use among young people increases the risk of infection and transmission.

The ballooning rates in California mirror a national trend: While the majority of Americans already living with hepatitis C are baby boomers, people ages 20-29 are experiencing the highest overall number of new infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May.

IV drug use has increased as a consequence of the prescription opioid epidemic. And that rise in injection drug use is tied to the jump in hepatitis C among young people, says Emalie Huriaux, director of federal and state affairs for Project Inform, which advocates on behalf of people with hepatitis C.

"We do know that most hepatitis C infections are related to sharing drug injection equipment and so this increase in hepatitis C among young people is directly related to increased use of drugs by injection," she says.

Huriaux says the increase in hepatitis C among young people is not surprising, but remains an "unfortunate trend," adding, "younger people are often more difficult to engage into systems to get them care and treatment than older folks are."

State health officials say implementing prevention strategies, including improved access to sterile syringes and more treatment for opioid use disorders, could reduce the rate of new hepatitis C infections among young IV drug users by 60 percent.

Officials also recommend that all residents who have ever injected drugs, even once, and all people born between 1945 and 1965, talk to their doctors about getting tested for hepatitis C.

The CDC says baby boomers could have been infected from medical equipment before universal precautions and infection procedures were adopted; from contaminated blood before widespread screening virtually eliminated the virus from the blood supply in 1992; or from sharing needles or other drug equipment.

An estimated 400,000 Californians live with chronic hepatitis C, but many don't know they're infected, according to state health officials. Chronic hepatitis C infection can lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Hepatitis C-related deaths now outnumber those due to HIV.