Massachusetts Hepatitis C Cases Increase, Especially in Urban AreasHepatitis C cases have increased statewide in Massachusetts, particularly in urban areas, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports. An estimated 110,000 Massachusetts residents have the virus, which can cause liver failure that if untreated can lead to death. In Worcester, city health department officials recorded 136 new cases in 2000 compared to 89 in 1999. However, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recorded only 44 new cases in 2000 and 10 in 1999. The discrepancies in the figures are due to "uneven standards in reporting," Bela Matyas, the DPH medical director of epidemiology, said, adding that it is "still very early in the process of trying to understand the numbers." Edla Bloom, executive director of AIDS Project Worcester, said that many city residents first learned that they had hepatitis C, the most common bloodborne virus in the United States, after giving blood following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Some of them were quite surprised, they had no idea. They had to think long and hard how they actually got it," she said.
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The rise in hepatitis C is especially worrisome because people with the virus are often coinfected with HIV. The Boston-based AIDS Action Committee reported that 60% of its clients also have hepatitis C. Bloom noted that hepatitis C treatment is "often incompatible" with HIV treatments, forcing people to choose which virus to treat. Because of the high rates of coinfection, many health advocates have lobbied for needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of either virus through contaminated needles. Boston, Cambridge, Provincetown and Northampton -- all of which have such programs -- in 2000 recorded lower rates of HIV transmission through intravenous drug use than cities that do not have needle exchanges. A task force appointed by Worcester City Manager Thomas Hoover is expected to make "substantive recommendations" for combatting hepatitis C and HIV in the city, Bloom said. However, hepatitis C initiatives across the state are facing funding problems. While the number of new cases has increased across the state, funding for hepatitis C initiatives has remained flat. The state again this year allocated $2.75 million for hepatitis C prevention and treatment, an amount advocates said is "far too low" to make an impact (Nangle, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 1/10).