CDC report shows 16 new opioid-related HIV cases in Merrimack Valley

BOSTON — New numbers from the CDC reveal 16 new opioid-related HIV cases in the Merrimack Valley.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says the numbers suggest the HIV outbreak is ongoing and keeping pace with 2017, where 52 new cases were reported.

The total number of opioid-related HIV diagnoses since 2017 has now risen to 68.

Boston 25 News first reported in March about a possible opioid-related HIV outbreak in the Merrimack Valley. In May, we followed volunteers as they handed out clean needles in Lawrence, a new program aimed at reducing the spread of HIV and other diseases through providing a safe alternative for users.

"Normally we see 12 -15 cases a year, [but] in the month of July 2017, we saw eight," said Judy Lethbridge, who works at the Lowell Community Health Center. "It's unusual to see so many new diagnoses and the risk factor for these individuals was injection drug use."

The CDC's 5-week federal investigation into the issue raises the question of how to fix the problem moving forward.

"The reason we look at networks and create those connections in a map of transmission is to understand what is a sexual transmission component, what is the injection drug component, the network is where the risk is - the people in that network," said Al DiMaria, the state's medical director for infectious diseases.

Dr. DiMaria believes fentanyl could be one reason for the new outbreak as users inject it more frequently.

"You have to inject more frequently, we think one of the factors is going to be important is more frequent injection," said Dr. DiMaria.

Lethbridge was the first one to notice the alarming rise in opioid-related HIV cases.

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"It was an extreme turnaround and terrifying really, if anyone is sharing, the repercussions could be widespread," said Lethbridge.

The Lowell Health Community Center is currently working to raise awareness about clean needle exchanges and "PREP" - a medication they offer for free that reduces the risk of contracting HIV by as much as 85 percent.

"We just got a grant - a small grant to run a group for individuals who are not yet infected and are actively using IV drugs, to teach them to teach their peers," said Lethbridge.

Health officials plan to share their preliminary findings later in June.