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Used heroin needles suspected in rise of hepatitis C cases

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Health officials suspect the rising rate of heroin use in Minnesota may be tied to the increase of people being diagnosed with hepatitis C in the state, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Officials fear the spread of hepatitis C – a disease that can destroy one's liver – is being exacerbated by the sharing of needles.

"Certainly, hepatitis C is transmitted through injection drug use, so people who inject drugs are at high risk of getting hepatitis C," Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist Kristin Sweet tells MPR. "If we see increases in injection drug use, it makes sense that we'd see hepatitis C as well."

According to MPR, hepatitis C is the most common blood-born pathogen across the nation. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most common way the disease is spread is "sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse goes into specific detail why heroin users are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

Sweet tells MPR that 32 Minnesotans were diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2012; but the actual number of people who contract the disease is more because many people do not develop symptoms and as a result, don't get tested.

In May, the department estimated about 39,000 people were living with the disease statewide, KSTP said.

Advocates tell MPR that needle exchange programs – which provide new syringes to users and destroy old ones – are effective in stopping the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, but there's a stigma that it also encourages drug use. That stigma in turn makes it difficult to obtain funding for such programs.

MPR says only three standalone needle exchanges operate in the state.

Meanwhile, counties in the metro area are trying to get a handle on the rising number of heroin-related deaths.

Last month, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said 54 people died of heroin overdose in the county 2013, making it the deadliest year yet for such deaths in the county. Stanek said the number was seven times higher than just three years prior, when eight people died from heroin overdoses.

In addition, Anoka County officials held three community forums in January and February to address the escalating problem of heroin use.

Anoka County law enforcement officials say the number of deaths due to heroin overdoses in the county has tripled in the last two years.

According to KSTP, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was at the Feb. 17 forum to talk about her strategy to urge the Drug Enforcement Agency to focus on the jump in heroin use.

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