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Public Health Responds to Increasing Rates of Hepatitis C

Over the past several years, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has increased our efforts to identify and follow up on hepatitis C infections in our community. Because the most common risk factor of acute hepatitis C infection is injection drug use, rates of hepatitis C have increased as the opioid epidemic has unfolded.

Nationwide, levels of hepatitis C cases have increased, and Pierce County saw a spike in local cases of acute, or new, infection beginning in 2014. We successfully stepped up our efforts to find more new infections. Our goal is to help people with infection get the treatment they need to get well.

But why is hepatitis C a big deal? It’s the leading cause of liver cancer and most people with the infection don’t know they have the virus. In fact, many people with hepatitis C live for decades with no symptoms. Getting tested could save your life, because new treatments can cure hepatitis C—more than 90 percent of the time.   

Local hepatitis C acute cases on the rise

In 2015 and 2016, Pierce County contributed a third of Washington’s total number of acute hepatitis C cases. For 2017 we will likely see 40 acute cases.

Public health helps to track and control disease

Our ongoing work to track and control hepatitis C is essential. It’s a core part of what we do in public health. We see what’s happening in the community’s overall health, and when disease happens, we work to control the spread—and prevent it.

Here’s the wrinkle: Increased hepatitis work can also identify infection not related to the opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, we received reports of new hepatitis C infection in people who didn’t have the usual risk factors. Again, the most common risk factor is injection drug use.

When we investigate cases and identify sources of potential exposure of hepatitis C, we work with healthcare providers to notify their patients. Because we have a strong hepatitis program we expect that we will continue to find cases in people who don’t have the usual risk factors. And we will make sure people who are affected get notified so they can get tested and connected to treatment—if needed.

If you receive a notification from your healthcare provider that you may have been exposed to hepatitis C and need to get tested, follow the instructions for testing. By testing for hepatitis C to see if you are infected, you help yourself, your family and your community. There is no shame in having hepatitis C. And no one else in your family or community will know your results.

For others who may be concerned about hepatitis C, there are steps you can take. Read on…

Am I at risk for hepatitis C?

Take this free online test to find out if you are at risk.

People born from 1945-1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C. If you were born between 1945-1965, talk to your doctor about getting tested. The national blood supply was not tested for hepatitis C prior to 1992. The healthcare field hasn’t always used our current universal precautions to prevent the spread of blood borne diseases.

When to get tested

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should get tested for hepatitis C:

  • Did you receive a notification letter about possible hepatitis C exposure and the need to get tested?
  • Have you used injection drugs and shared drug equipment with a person who has hepatitis C?
  • Did you receive donated blood or organs before 1992?
  • Does your mom have hepatitis C?
  • Have you had sex with a person who has hepatitis C?
  • Have you shared personal care items like razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, tweezers or floss with a person who has hepatitis C?
  • Did you get a tattoo from an unregulated source, like in prison or from a friend?
  • Do you have concerns about a healthcare procedure you received, like an injection or blood draw?
  • Were you born between 1945 and 1965?

When people get tested, if they are positive for hepatitis C, the Health Department makes sure they get the treatment they need—so they can get well. Regardless of how a person may have become infected, it’s important for them to get treatment.

Otherwise, it will remain lurking. The longer someone has the disease, the more time it has to damage to the liver.

Yes, hepatis is a big deal. It’s on the rise in our community, and we will likely support future provider efforts to ask their patients to get tested. But the good news is—when we find acute cases, we can help people get the treatment they need. That gets people well, saves lives and helps our community to be healthier.

For more information about hepatitis C, visit

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