An outbreak of hepatitis C has been reported in Dakota County, and health officials say most of the cases are in young adults who had been sharing needles to use drugs.
State officials say there have been 16 reported cases of hepatitis C so far this year in Dakota County. That's already twice as many as were reported in the county all of last year.
Richard Danila, deputy state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, says none of the people known to be infected are showing symptoms. They discovered they have the virus after being tested for it.
All of those involved are under the age of 30, with a median age of 18. That means most of them are likely in high school or just out of it.
Danila says epidemiologists looking for similarities found that most of them use drugs, mainly heroin, and share needles.
"We couldn't say for sure that Johnny shared a needle with Mary, who shared it with Bob. But we could kind of see that they knew each other or were in this social network, persumably sharing needles," said Danila.
Hepatitis C causes swelling of the liver. There are treatments but no cure. Danilla says most people with it develop chronic conditions.
"Half of those with a chronic carriage will develop cancer of the liver, or cirrhosis of the liver. So it's a very bad infection to have, with lifelong consequences," he said.
The fact that this outbreak is among heroin users does not surprise Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, who says there's been more heroin use recently in his county -- and around the state.
Dakota County had 42 heroin-related arrests last year, which is triple the number from 2008.
The total amount of heroin that was seized in the county in 2007 totaled four grams, about the weight of two dimes. Last year's seized heroin weighed 553 grams, which is more than a pound.
Bellows says the heroin, which is coming through channels from Mexico and Colombia, has been purer, which means it's stronger.
"These kids are not chemists; they don't understand what they're dealing with," Bellows said. "It's a deadly drug. Someone wants to experiment with a drug, and it can result in them losing their lives. That scares me, and it should scare everybody."
The state health department receives about 2,000 new reports of chronic hepatitis C in Minnesota each year, mostly found among drug users using infected needles.
State health officials say they don't think they've identified everyone who might be infected from sharing needles in this network in Dakota County. Health care providers, including school nurses in the area, have been alerted. They're being encouraged to assess whether patients are a risk for hepatitis C and test them if they are.
The state has a program that aims to curb the spread of disease by letting people buy 10 syringes without a prescription.