State health officials have called in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help investigate a spike in HIV infections in Lawrence and Lowell among people who inject drugs. Here’s a recap of what we know about the outbreak and the planned response:
■ Fifty-two new cases of the virus that causes AIDS arose last year in the area around the two cities, compared to 32 cases the previous year. Health officials believe it is being spread via needle-sharing. The virus can spread quickly once someone introduces it into a group of younger drug users who might not follow infection-control measures that older users practice.
■ A key factor thought to be driving disease transmission is the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic drug that produces a more intense high than heroin but wears off faster. As result, people inject more frequently, multiplying the opportunities for transmission. Fentanyl sold illegally continues to be the leading factor in Massachusetts overdose deaths.
■ The CDC team, which is scheduled to arrive later this month, is equipped to sequence the genomes of viral samples, in hopes of locating the networks of drug users that are transmitting the virus. Along with Massachusetts health officials, they aim to interview infected individuals about needle-sharing and sexual partners. But injectable-drug users are hard to find and track because many are homeless and move around frequently.
“It could happen anywhere in the state,” said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the Department of Public Health’s infectious disease medical director and state epidemiologist.