Needle

As Alaska communities struggle to combat a growing heroin epidemic, reported cases of hepatitis C are increasing in the state, particularly among young adults, according to an epidemiology bulletin released Thursday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

In the Kodiak Island Borough, the number of new reported cases fell from 22 in 2011 to nine in 2012, but has since slowly increased, with 12 in 2013, 15 in 2014 and 24 in 2015.

These numbers reflect only cases reported to DHSS and may not accurately “reflect the true burden of disease for your community,” said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist for the department and co-editor of the bulletin.

Statewide, total reported cases increased 38 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to the bulletin. In that same period, the reported number among 18- to 29-year-olds increased 101 percent.

Citing health privacy laws, Castrodale declined to provide more detailed information on whether there has been a similar increase for young adults in the Kodiak Island Borough, but she said 15 of the 91 total reported cases in the borough over the five year period fall within that demographic.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease transmitted most commonly by contact with the blood of an infected person.

Statewide, adults over 50 still represent the largest percentage of new diagnoses. Last year, 38 percent of new reported infections were in this demographic, with 18- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 49-year-olds each representing 31 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the high prevalence in the older demographic is likely because precautions — including the widespread screening of blood products — were not adopted until 1992. Symptoms often do not appear for decades.

However, “A rising proportion of HCV-infected persons nationally are young adults with a history of injection drug use,” according to the bulletin.

DHSS recommendations to curb further spread of the disease include efforts to reduce intravenous drug use, syringe exchange programs and increased screening for both hepatitis C infection and substance abuse disorders. 

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