The results of a hepatitis C virus screening program in a suburban New Jersey acute opioid detoxification program reveal that, despite the ease of access to HCV screening and the availability of curative therapies, linkage to care after detection of infection in persons who inject drugs continues to present a challenge.

Eda Akyar, a clinical research coordinator at ID Care, New Jersey’s largest network of infectious disease specialists, and her colleagues examined the results of an HIV, HCV, and HBV infection screening program instituted between Oct. 1, 2014, and June 9, 2015, for patients admitted to an acute opioid detoxification program at Princeton House in suburban New Jersey. Study goals included assessing the prevalence of HIV, HCV, and HBV infections for these patients, the HCV genotype (GT) carried, and the subsequent linkage to care after discharge from the program. The report was published online April 13 in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

During the screening period, patients representing 10 of New Jersey’s 21 counties were tested for the presence of HCV antibodies. Approximately two-thirds of all study participants (66.6%) were between 17 and 35 years of age. In this important age demographic, 237 patients (41.4%) screened positive for HCV antibodies, and 187 were available for further study.

HCV viral load data were available from 172 patients (92.0%), with approximately one-fifth (18.6%) screening undetectable. The HCV GTs obtained from 102 patients revealed that most (62.7%) were GT1a, followed by GT3 (25.5%). In a very surprising result, all HCV antibody positive patients were also HIV antibody negative, the researchers noted.

Regarding linkage to care, 16 of the patients (8.6%) in the 17- to 35-year-old age group attended outpatient follow-up appointments, with three (1.6%) starting on an oral, direct-acting antiviral treatment regimen. Two of these three patients were nonadherent to their treatment regimens. Two additional patients expressed willingness to accept treatment, but were denied their prescriptions by their insurance providers. None of the other participants returned for continued care.

The authors said that their results indicated a high prevalence of HCV among young suburban heroin users attending an acute detoxification program serving a wide geographic area, suggesting that New Jersey is part of the second wave of HCV infection following that seen in those born from 1946 to 1964. They also highlighted their findings of a GT3 prevalence more than twice the national average, a complete lack of HIV infection in a population known to be susceptible to it, and disappointing linkage to care outcomes.

The authors said that easy-to-use curative therapy should underscore a need for improved linkage to care and treatment of HCV-infected persons who inject drugs as part of an important public health effort to prevent its continued spread.

This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Investigator-Initiated Studies Program of Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. Conflict of interest information was not disclosed.