The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging people to speak with their physician or local health department about hepatitis A and B vaccine, viral hepatitis screenings and treatment options.
From 2012 to 2016, newly diagnosed cases of hepatitis B increased by 62 percent and newly diagnosed cases of hepatitis C increased by 200 percent. Untreated hepatitis B and C may result in long-term liver problems, chronic liver disease and elevated risk of liver cancer.
While hepatitis C is curable there is no vaccine yet available. Vaccines are available for both hepatitis A and B.
“Across the country we have seen that the opioid epidemic has also led to an increase in infectious disease transmission,” said State Health Director and DHHS Chief Medical Officer Betsey Tilson, M.D., MPH. “It is important that patients at risk are tested for viral hepatitis and HIV and receive the proper counseling and referrals to harm reduction services and treatment.”
The leading cause of new hepatitis C cases is transmission through the sharing of needles, syringes and other injection equipment during drug use. It is crucial that these supplies are never shared to prevent the continued spread of hepatitis B and C.
Hepatitis B and C are spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of someone who is not infected. Hepatitis B, and in some instances hepatitis C, can also be spread through sex with an infected partner.
It is estimated that as many as 150,000 North Carolinians are infected with chronic hepatitis C and 60,000 are infected with chronic hepatitis B.
Of those infected with hepatitis C, as many as 75 percent are unaware of their infection and most experience no symptoms. The importance of prevention and treatment for all forms of hepatitis are highlighted this month by a proclamation from Governor Roy Cooper designating May as Hepatitis Awareness Month.
DHHS urges increased testing with a focus on people who are the most difficult to reach. These include people who have used injection drugs or had blood transfusions, blood products or organ donations before June 1992, when sensitive tests for the hepatitis C virus were introduced for blood screening.
“It is essential that heath care providers and agencies that assist at-risk individuals establish community partnerships to engage with those at the highest risk for disease transmission and encourage them to get tested and seek treatment, if needed,” said Evelyn Foust, Communicable Disease Branch Head for the Division of Public Health.
More than 50 percent of all chronic hepatitis C infections nationwide are among the Baby Boomer population, those born from 1945 to 1965. People born during this time are encouraged to receive one lifetime hepatitis C screening. Testing is recommended for Baby Boomers, regardless of any history of risky behavior or potential health care exposures prior to 1992.
With new drugs and treatment methods now available, patients experience fewer side effects, improved outcomes and higher cure rates.