A $1.3 million grant was recently awarded to fund a study that will explore the increased prevalence of hepatitis C infection in young adults. Kimberly Page, a professor at the University of New Mexico and chief of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Preventive Medicine, will lead the study, which is being funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Page said in an interview with HPClive that this study is mainly focused on prevention, therefore researchers will assess infection rates of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and evaluate prevention services, treatment access, and care outcomes.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, and its transmission in the United States is mostly the result of infected injections from drug use. Learning about the risk factors for HVC is crucial to addressing improved eduction preventing and eventually curing the disease.
Researchers have been observing a wave of HCV among young drug injectors in other geographical areas such as Baltimore, San Francisco, and Boston, hence the urgency and importance of this research. According to the HPClive article, in New Mexico, about 50 percent of the population lives in rural, non-urban areas that have not been adequately documented and studied in terms of disease prevalence. “There is a hepatitis C epidemic here that is not well characterized,” Dr. Page noted. “In fact the last time there was a systematic survey was 20 years ago.”
According to a CDC study regarding data from 2006 to 2012, young people age 30 and younger substantially contributed to a significant spike in the amount of acute HCV cases; young adults injecting drugs and living in non-urban areas were closely associated with new HCV outbreaks. “We want to characterize this in younger people because that tells us where the windows of prevention opportunity are,” said Page.
This new study is expected to take 3 years to complete, and it will be conducted in two counties in New Mexico. The study will include young people between 18-30 years old who inject drugs. Currently, Page and her research team are concluding the protocol for the study. Researchers will collaborate with New Mexico’s department of health to continue the study and recruit about 500 people. Page’s team includes researchers from the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) project.
The new grant will fund an important advance in understanding and responding to New Mexico’s HCV epidemic and, thereafter, to other geographical areas throughout the United States. “We will assess DOH prevention services and ECHO treatment services as an integrated approach to addressing hepatitis C levels in our younger population,” said Page. Many HVC infections are discovered when young drug users overdose and wind up at clinics. When that happens, thanks to ECHO and its infrastructures for providing care in non-urban areas, drug users are immediately referred to care: “we’re not just going to identify people … we’ll be referring them into care. 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,” explained Page.