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Hepatitis C Cases Spike among Young People in Denver

Testing and prevention practices encouraged as increase tied to opioid epidemic

Thursday, November 9, 2017

According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment the number of hepatitis C cases among 21-30 year olds in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Douglas counties has nearly tripled over the past four years, from 91 cases in 2012 to 255 cases in 2016. Last year alone, the number of cases among young people increased by more than 65  percent—up from 151 cases in 2015.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection that spreads between people through the blood. Many people who get hepatitis C have no symptoms until they develop advanced liver disease. If diagnosed early and treated, hepatitis C can be a curable short-term illness. If left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious long-term liver problems, including cirrhosis or liver cancer.

"The increase in hepatitis C among young adults highlights the importance of testing, treatment, and, especially, prevention," said Sarah Rowan, MD, associate director, HIV and Viral Hepatitis Prevention, Denver Public Health. "The increase reflects an increase in injection drug use. We have effective prevention strategies including syringe access programs and opioid replacement programs. Treatment for Hepatitis C can also reduce the number of new cases we see in the future."

Sharing contaminated needles, syringes and other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs can transmit hepatitis C and other blood borne infections, such as hepatitis B and HIV. Access to free sterile syringes and safe injection equipment through syringe access programs are effective ways to prevent the spread of these infections. People who inject drugs are encouraged to never share equipment.

Syringe access programs are located in Denver and the greater Denver metro area, from downtown locations like the Harm Reduction Action Center to It Takes a Village off of Colfax Avenue in Aurora and Points West in Lakewood.

Tri-County Health Department has provided syringe access services in Aurora since October 2016, closely working with many community partners. "Our program offers comprehensive services for people who inject drugs; including encouraging them to be tested for HIV and Hepatitis C, counseling, Naloxone overdose prevention education, and access to health care,"said John M. Douglas, Jr., MD, executive director, Tri-County Health Department. "The recent increase in hepatitis C cases is a call to action to take all steps possible to control this serious infectious disease."

The CDC recommends people who have ever injected illegal drugs or were born between 1945 and 1965 get tested for hepatitis C and get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. There is no vaccination for hepatitis C, but there is treatment. People diagnosed with hepatitis C should talk with a health care provider about treatment options. Treating hepatitis C early is important to prevent long-term complications and to reduce the possibility of giving hepatitis C to other people.