LOWELL -- A recent spike in local HIV cases that prompted the state Department of Public Health to seek federal assistance is likely an effect of the opioid epidemic, health officials say.

Many of the new cases in Lowell have occurred among users of injected drugs such as heroin. As a bloodborne virus, HIV can be easily transmitted through contaminated syringes, which have become a more common presence during the opioid crisis.

"Reusing needles any time carries a risk of HIV," said Judy Lethbridge, quality coordinator at the Lowell Community Health Center. "With fentanyl, we're told people are using multiple times a day. They need to get that fix, they pick them up off the street, they don't know who's used them previously. It's the addiction, unfortunately, that's driving it."

The number of new HIV diagnoses across Massachusetts as a whole has not increased at an unusual rate, but in the northeast portion of the state including Lowell and Lawrence, the numbers jumped significantly. In 2016, there were 23 new cases in the region. A year later, there were 52, according to DPH data.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, can lead to AIDS, a potentially fatal disease, if left untreated.

The HIV spike prompted the state DPH to ask the federal Centers for Disease Control for assistance with resources and personnel, a move that officials hope will bring clearer answers.


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"The advantage of getting the CDC involved is that they've had a lot of experience in other jurisdiction with similar clusters and outbreaks," said Al DeMaria, the DPH's state epidemiologist and infectious disease medical director. "They have capacity to do some sophisticated genetic testing of the virus to connect viruses and help us focus our attention on the actual networks of transmission that are occurring."

The CDC agreed to help Massachusetts authorities following the request. A spokesman directed specific inquiries to the DPH.

Authorities will continue to investigate the situation in northeastern Massachusetts, but several medical experts said opioid use is a major contributor to the latest increase in HIV cases.

Employees at both the Lowell Community Health Center and Lowell General Hospital said they have seen an increase in HIV cases firsthand. Many are diagnosed locally, which physicians then report to the state.

"If IV drug users are not practicing safe injecting practices and (not) using a clean, sterile syringe or needle every time, that increases their risk," said Michelle Antonellis, manager of Lowell General's Infection Prevention and Control Department.

The CDC itself issued an extensive guide last month offering suggestions to local municipalities on how to respond to the spread of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C resulting from drug use. The document emphasizes the importance of treatment and awareness.

Several of those strategies are already in place locally, a key message that local health leaders hope to stress. Needle-exchange programs, although not widespread in Lowell, are becoming more common as a way to ensure those who are injecting substances are at least avoiding risks of transmission. Health centers also offer drugs to mitigate risks.

One drug for those who have not contracted HIV but are at risk of doing so reduces the chance of transmission by 85 percent, Lethbridge said, while another for those already infected lowers the concentration of the virus in a patient's blood dramatically.

Resources are available to help those without health insurance get access, and health centers can also direct patients toward addiction treatment.

"We can help," Lethbridge said. "Every single newly diagnosed person is one too many, and it doesn't have to happen."

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.