Opioid-related HIV cases spike in Lowell

LOWELL, Mass. — HIV cases are rising at an alarming rate in Lowell and experts say dirty needles are to blame.

In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported three cases of opioid-related HIV cases in Lowell. In  2017, that number jumped to 24.

"It is alarming. It's frightening. It's perhaps the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Thomas Stopka, Tufts University School of Medicine.

Stopka has been tracking opioid-related HIV cases for years and say what he's found in Lowell is cause for concern.

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According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health:

  • In 2014, there was one such reported case in Lowell.
  • In 2015, there were two.
  • In 2016, there were three.
  • But in 2017, that number jumped to 24.

"We haven't seen that spike in Mass., in Lowell in many years," said Stopka.

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Stopka attributes the spike in HIV cases to dirty needles. To combat this public health crisis, the Life Connections Center in Lowell recently launched a needle exchange program. Addicts can now bring in their used needs and receive clean needles in return.

Amanda Shaw is the director of recovery coaching and outreach at the Lowell House, another outreach program.

"By giving people clean needles, we're giving them an opportunity to decrease their chances of getting HIV or Hepatitis C," said Shaw.

Stopka says without a rapid response, there is concern the number of cases in 2018 could climb even higher. Boston 25 News has asked both the state and Lowell health departments for cases so far this year, but we're told they aren't releasing those numbers.

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"There are likely other people who are living with HIV who have not been tested and who don't know they're infected," said Stopka.

A spokeswoman with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health told Boston 25 News since 2016, they've quadrupled needle exchange programs in the state.

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