The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had announced it will join the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in its investigation of a cluster of HIV cases among people who inject drugs.
Two weeks ago, Boston 25 News reporter Stephanie Coueignoux reported on a spike of opioid-related HIV cases in Lowell. Experts said dirty needles are to blame for the alarming rise.
“These are only the people who happen to get tested and find out they are positive. So, there are people who haven't been tested yet,” Dr. Al DeMaria from the Massachusetts DPH said. “This is probably related to fentanyl, because with fentanyl, people tend to inject more frequently and your risk of infection is every time you inject.”
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After seeing the increase in Lawrence and Lowell, the DPH requested assistance from the CDC.
The CDC said that although Massachusetts as a whole has not seen an overall increase in the number of new HIV cases, the number of new cases attributed to people who inject drugs has increased greatly. DPH says 52 new cases were reported in 2017, compared to 23 in 2016.
"We're in the middle of a terrible public health crisis and we haven't seen something this bad in Massachusetts since the worst of the AIDS epidemic," Carl Sciortino, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee, said.
"We have seen an increase in the number of newly diagnosed cases of hepatitis C related to injection drug use in people under the age of 30 over the past several years and have been concerned about the potential for HIV infection following a similar course," said Dr. Al DeMaria, infectious disease medical director and state epidemiologist at DPH.
DPH asked the CDC for help in determining the underlying cases, why it is happening now and different studies.
The assistance from the CDC is expected to begin at the end of April.
"In order to fully characterize what is going on and what would be required to effectively prevent further spread of infection, we have asked for assistance from CDC. This assistance can allow a more rapid investigation by putting more investigators in the field and making further use of the capacity of CDC for advanced laboratory methods and their expertise acquired in other investigations. The sooner we can discover why these infections are happening now, the sooner we can use the most effective prevention interventions based on the evidence," said DeMaria.
Last week, the CDC released guidance to local and state health departments on managing HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks. You can read that information here.
Sciortino said clean needle exchanges, HIV testing and outreach programs are essential to preventing the outbreak from spreading.
"What we're seeing now are just the first few cases that we're detecting- those that are getting tested for HIV, getting positive results. Most of the people who are on the streets are not getting access to the to the services or HIV testing," he said.