MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Medical officials fear the rise of heroin abuse in Minnesota is connected to an increase in hepatitis C. Some suspect dirty needles may be to blame.

An increase in needle use typically leads to an increase in hepatitis C. In 2001, only about five percent of new cases were people under 30. In 2012, that had risen to 13.5 percent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is describing it as an emerging epidemic.

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Law enforcement has been tracking the rise in heroin use for years.

“I had 54 heroin deaths in 2013 in this county alone,” Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said Tuesday.

Health care professions are also paying attention. They too have noticed a sharp increase in the use of opiates.

“You can take it orally, you can snort it, you can smoke it or you can inject it … but when people get desperate enough, they want the biggest bang for their buck, so they usually graduate to injecting,” Dr. Joseph Lee of Hazelden said.

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Blood to blood contact is how people get hepatitis C — typically through IV drug use. The virus attacks the liver and it can’t be cured.

In 2012, there were 2037 reports of Minnesotans with hepatitis C. Thirty-two were new cases: people who got the virus within the past 6 months.

The Minnesota Department of Health has a needle exchange program. The goal is to ensure that people who inject the drug don’t contract or pass on blood-borne infections like HIV or hepatitis C.

“Along with the needle exchange, users are also getting education about HIV prevention. They are getting an education about a variety of things to protect their health,” Doug Schultz of the Minnesota Department of Health said. “The needle exchange program can save lives.”

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Health department officials say it is hard to determine how many people carry the virus. Right now, there are more than 39,000 Minnesotans living with hepatitis C. That number could be larger because some who have it have no symptoms and are not tested.