• CDC: Fentanyl drastically impacting the HIV outbreak in Merrimack Valley

    By: Stephanie Coueignoux


    LAWRENCE, Mass. - The number of HIV infections is rising in Lowell and Lawrence, with 68 new infections reported since the start of 2017.

    The main cause? Drug users sharing syringes or using dirty needles. 

    The opioid related HIV outbreak in the Merrimack Valley was one of the main topics of the HIV Innovations in Action Conference in Cambridge.

    Dr. Alex Oster is a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In April, CDC investigators began collecting and analyzing genetic data from individuals recently diagnosed with HIV.

    MORE: Opioid-related HIV cases spike in Lowell

    Because HIV mutates, the similar strain of the virus indicates its spread too quickly to change. Investigators uncovered a network more widespread than first thought. 

    “It also had ties to other people -- people who didn't inject drugs -- who may have been through sexual transmission and people in other parts of the state. The molecular data allow to understand the full context of a situation,” Dr. Oster explained. 

    Dr. Charles Alpren has been investigating this HIV outbreak for weeks. He says their preliminary findings indicate fentanyl is the driving force behind the outbreak. 

    Because fentanyl provides a short and intense high, the user must shoot up more often to maintain the high. 

    MORE: Street level programs in Merrimack Valley are fighting spread of HIV

    Alpren also noticed fentanyl caused individuals to change their behavior.

    “We found that there is changes in the sexual networks -- exchange sex. Use of drugs that can influence sexual behavior as well,” Dr. Alpren said. “It also means there is less opportunity to be sober -- not to be intoxicated -- which means less opportunities to engage in services.”

    Both CDC and state officials say adding needle exchange programs will help reduce the risk.

    The CDC will release their report on the Merrimack Valley HIV outbreak by the end of the month.

    MORE: CROSSROADS: Lowell -- A Boston 25 News in-depth report

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