After decades of being on the decline, hepatitis cases are taking a sharp upswing in North Carolina and the rest of the country.
The latest data released Wednesday from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services finds that new cases of hepatitis B increased by 56 percent between 2014 and 2016.
New cases of hepatitis C rose by 69 percent.
Christina Caputo, hepatitis program manager for the North Carolina Division of Public Health, says while there’s no data to prove causation, the growth of the illness correlates with the opioid epidemic.
“We can say that a majority of our surveillance cases that we’re seeing do have some link to injection drug use, and it’s part of this endemic that’s typically involved where you see elevated rates of blood-borne pathogens with elevated cases of injection drug use,” she points out.
Hepatitis B and C spread when the blood of an infected person enters the body of someone who is not infected, often through the sharing of needles.
The illness has been on the rise since 2009, with injection drug use believed to be the biggest factor.
Local health departments offer free testing and, in some cases, treatment for qualifying individuals.
According to state data, as many as 150,000 North Carolinians have a chronic hepatitis C infection, and more than 60,000 have hepatitis B.
Chronic cases do not have any symptoms.
Caputo says baby boomers are one population for undiagnosed illness, exposed to the virus before prevention measures became a common practice in hospital care.
“It’s not necessarily just new cases of acute hepatitis C,” she states. “There is a large cohort of individuals born between 1945 and 1965 who are just innately more at risk and probably have been living with hepatitis C for a long period of time.”
Hepatitis A appears as a new infection and normally improves without treatment. Hepatitis B and C cause long-term liver infections that can cause permanent damage if not treated.