North Carolina reported a 69 percent increase in Hepatitis C cases, and a 56 percent increase in Hepatitis B cases between 2014 and 2016, according to a recent media release.
New Hanover and Pender counties had rates that were higher than the state’s, with 23 cases total in that two-year period, said Christie Caputo, the Hepatitis Program Manager in the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
“We tend to see more cases in the Western and Southeastern [parts of the state],” she said.
In 2014, there were nine cases of Hepatitis C in these three counties, she added.
That increase coincides with the surge in opioid addiction, since injection drug use is one of the primary ways that people become infected with Hepatitis C. According to the North Carolina Department of Health, opioid overdose rates have increase 1,000 percent in the past 15 percent, compared to 400 percent in North Carolina.
Acute cases of Hepatitis C are especially on the rise, Caputo said, which means that active transmission is occurring. The infection is spread through blood-to-blood contact. Although it is curable, if it’s not discovered in time, the acute form of the disease can morph into a chronic condition that puts people at high risk of liver failure and liver cancer.
The state estimates that between 110,000 and 150,000 people in North Carolina have chronic Hep C.
“Most people with Hepatitis C are unaware of the infection, especially those who are at risk, or have at-risk behavior like injection drug use,” Caputo said. “Only about 25 percent of people experience symptoms.”
Symptoms include nausea, loss of appetite, stomach pains, fatigue and jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Most Hepatitis C diagnoses have been in white males between the ages of 21 and 40, according to the news release. Baby boomers—or adults born between 1945 and 1965—are also at higher risk. About 50 percent of chronic Hepatitis C cases in the U.S. are baby boomers, said Caputo, adding this is partly because they were exposed to the infection before screening was available.
Hepatitis B also spreads through blood as well as sex, the latter of which can also spread Hepatitis C, although less frequently, according to the news release. Hepatitis B has many of the same symptoms as Hepatitis C. Although it is incurable, there is a vaccine for it.
The Public Health Department is encouraging all at-risk people to get the blood tests for both Hepatitis B and C.