A growing number of Islanders, particularly younger people, are contracting Hepatitis C, a jump that is directly linked to intravenous drug use in P.E.I, say health officials.

In the last decade, the number of people who have contracted the virus, which infects the blood and damages the liver, has nearly doubled from about 25 cases a year to 50.

Currently, 760 people have Hepatitis C in P.E.I.

Hepatitis C - new cases in P.E.I.

2000: 24

2001: 28

2002: 38

2003: 38

2004: 36

2005: 44

2006: 38

2007: 49

2008: 46

2009: 35

2010: 56

2011: 49

2012: 56

Numbers from P.E.I. Health Department and the Public Health Agency of Canada

The rate is in line with the rest of the Maritimes.

Dr. Lamont Sweet, deputy chief public health officer, attributes the rise in numbers to shared needle use among drug users.

He said it is a significant burden for the health care system.

"Even if it doesn't turn around, we have got over 700 people in the province who will have to be monitored, checked, many treated over the next few years. So, without it going down, we've already got a significant problem for the future."

The province is increasing testing for the disease.

It can be years before an infected person feels any symptoms or needs treatment.

Needles found in high schools

One course of treatment usually costs $18,000. Newer medications can cost up to $30,000 per treatment.

Liver failure, a complication of Hepatitis C requires significant treatment as well.

pe-si-alanaleard-aids

Intravenous drug use is increasing among youth, says Alana Leard, executive director of AIDS PEI. (CBC)

Sweet said it is a surprise to many people that there are so many people in the province who are using intravenous drugs. But the numbers of new cases of Hepatitis C each year indicates there is a significant number of users in the province.

And, said Sweet, the age range of those infected by Hepatitis C has changed significantly. It is no longer people over 30 who have the disease, but those in the 20 to 30-year-old range who are using drugs and becoming infected.

Alana Leard, executive director of AIDS PEI, agreed that while intravenous drug use has been a problem for a long time, it is coming to a head with youth right now.

Used needles can even be found in high schools, said Leard.

"So, it's in the schools, it's outside of the schools. It's everywhere."

The province's needle exchange program helps, but not enough people know about it, said Leard.

"It has to stop being a hush-hush subject. We need to really let people know that we know this is an issue. We're here for you. These are the places you can go and we really want to help you."