Hepatitis C Infections in Young People Spike from Opioid Epidemic

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

No vaccine exists for hepatitis C, but new medications provide a cure. 

May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, time to shed light on hidden epidemic and encourage testing

Viral hepatitis C may affect thousands of Pierce County residents. National Hepatitis Awareness month calls attention to the potentially deadly infection that can cause cirrhosis or liver cancer—and how to avoid it.

“Cases of acute and chronic hepatitis C in Pierce County are on a dramatic rise, especially among young people,” said Kim Desmarais, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department viral hepatitis coordinator. “Before 2013, we saw up to five cases a year. Now we see up to five cases a month,” Desmarais said.

In response to the increase in cases, the Health Department works with medical providers and community partners to report, test, and manage patients with hepatitis C. The Department also works to make sure these patients understand ways to stop the spread of the virus and find treatment options for hepatitis and drug addiction. Injection drug use spreads hepatitis C.

Reports the Health Department receives of new hepatitis C cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Many with the infection may not know they have it.

The Health Department estimates the new cases reported monthly in Pierce County represent fewer than 10% of the actual total. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 3.9 million Americans have hepatitis C, but only half know they’re infected. The number of people who have had hepatitis C for a long time but are just now finding out has increased because of a recommendation for doctors to routinely test people in the baby boomer generation.

Heroin and other illegal injection drug use are factors in the nationwide increase of hepatitis C cases, according to the CDC. Shared drugs and syringes spread the infection.

In a 2015 survey, the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) asked 77 needle exchange participants in Pierce County which drugs they injected. The majority (74%) said heroin, 22% said methamphetamine. When the ADAI looked at survey results from 18 needle exchange programs in the state, including Pierce County, researchers found 69% injected heroin and 22% methamphetamine.

Healthcare professionals can now treat and cure hepatitis C in as little as eight weeks with very few side effects. In the past, medication was not as effective, took almost a year to work, and caused severe side effects. For these reasons, many patients decided not to take them.

People with previously diagnosed hepatitis C should ask their doctor for a referral to a specialist who can evaluate them for the newer treatment. People can learn about the exposure risk, consequences if they don’t get treatment, and the importance of testing. May 19 is National Hepatitis Testing Day.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

   What is viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis is a disease that inflames the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Usually, these problems occur after many years of infection with chronic hepatitis. Different viruses cause different types of hepatitis, which spread in unique ways.   

   How does hepatitis spread?

Hepatitis B spreads through infected blood, sexual activity, and birth to an infected mother. The immunization against hepatitis B has helped decrease new cases of hepatitis B infection in the U.S. Hepatitis C spreads through infected blood. The most common cause of spread is through using injection drugs. No vaccine is available to protect against hepatitis C. Syringe exchange and drug treatment programs help curb the spread of hepatitis.

   What are the symptoms?

Chronic hepatitis is a silent killer. Most people may not know they are infected. Symptoms may include:

Abdominal Pain
Loss of Appetite
Tiredness

   Who is most at risk for hepatitis C?

- People who have used injection drugs (like heroin) even once.

- Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 (baby boomers) should get a one-time test because that age group is five times more likely to have hepatitis C than the general population.

- People who had a blood transfusion prior to 1992.

- People who have HIV.

- People diagnosed with abnormal liver function.

- Babies whose moms had hepatitis C while pregnant

   Who is most at risk for hepatitis B?

- People born in regions of the world with high or moderate rates of hepatitis B. This includes all countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

- People born in the U.S., not vaccinated at birth, and with at least one parent born in a country with high hepatitis B rates. This includes all countries in East and Southeast Asia, except for Japan, and the Pacific Islands.

- Household contacts and sexual partners of people with hepatitis B.

For more information about viral hepatitis, call Kim Desmarais at (253) 798-7681 or visit www.tpchd.org/hep. Read the Opioid Trends Report that the Health Department commissioned at www.tpchd.org/files/library/d5558c66bce89442.pdf.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s mission is to protect and improve the health of all people and places in Pierce County. As part of our mission, the Health Department tackles known and emerging health risks through policy, programs and treatment in order to protect public health.

We are one of only 163 accredited health departments in the country and among six in the state to have met or exceeded the Public Health Accreditation Board’s quality standards. Learn more at www.tpchd.org.

- Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department