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New Mexico Gets CDC Grant to Study Hepatitis C in Young Adults

Increased prevalence of hepatitis C infection among the nation's young is the subject of a new federally funded study underway in New Mexico.

Increased prevalence of hepatitis C infection among the nation’s young is the subject of a new federally funded study underway in New Mexico.

Kimberly Page, MD, a professor at the University of New Mexico and chief of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Preventive Medicine, will lead the study to investigate the hepatitis C epidemic among people who are young and new to drug injections. It is funded by a $1.3 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention is a key part of the study, Page said in a telephone interview with HCPlive. Researchers will assess infection rates of the virus and evaluate prevention services and treatment access and care outcomes.

Page said the study is needed because researchers have seen a surge in hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection among young drug injection users in other areas such as San Francisco, Baltimore, and Boston. New data is needed in New Mexico where about half the population is rural and non-urban, she said.

“There is a hepatitis C epidemic here that is not well characterized,” Page said. “In fact the last time there was a systematic survey was 20 years ago.”

The study will be conducted in two counties and include people ages 18 to 30 who inject drugs.The research team is finalizing the protocol for the study which is expected to take 3 years to complete, Page said.

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus and injection drug use is currently the most common means of transmission in the United States, according to the CDC.Information gathered by studying the risk factor for HCV infection helps inform programs that address disease education, prevention and intervention, Page said.

“We want to characterize this in younger people because that tells us where the windows of prevention opportunity are,” Page said.

Surveillance data indicate that the nation’s younger population, age 30 and below, experienced a significant spike in the number of acute HCV cases from 2006 to 2012, according to a study undertaken by the CDC. New outbreaks of the virus were especially higher among young adults living in non-urban areas who inject drugs, the study found.

Researchers plan to collaborate with New Mexico’s department of health to carry out the study that will enroll about 500 people. The team includes investigators from the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes project, also known as ECHO.

“This grant provides an important step in understanding and responding to the HCV epidemic in New Mexico specifically,” Page said in a release about the study. “We will assess DOH prevention services and ECHO treatment services as an integrated approach to addressing hepatitis C levels in our younger population.”

Page said many HCV infections are being discovered when young drug users wind up at clinics from an overdose and that Project ECHO has an infrastructure for providing care in non-urban areas.

“We’re not just going to identify people…we’ll be referring them into care,” Page said. “We want to assess whether we can get this high risk population to access care in the project ECHO model and then characterize the outcomes.”