Baby boomers at high risk of hepatitis C

Health authorities are warning that viral hepatitis may affect thousands of baby boomers.

Officials want to raise awareness the potentially deadly illness that can cause liver disease or cancer, and how to avoid it.

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

People who are most at risk for hepatitis C include everyone born between 1945 and 1965 – baby boomers. They should get a one-time test for the illness because that age group is five times more likely to have hepatitis C than the general population, officials say.

King County health officials give the same advice. According to Seattle-King County Public Health, tens of thousands of baby boomers there are protecting their health by getting a “hep C” test.

Hepatitis 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.

Seattle-King County health officials say the reason baby boomers are so susceptible to hepatitis C isn’t completely understood. Researchers think that most baby boomers were infected in the 1970s and 1980s, when rates were the highest. Many baby boomers could have gotten infected from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992.

In response to the increase in cases in Pierce County, the Health Department works with medical providers and community partners to report, test, and manage patients with hepatitis C. Desmaris said the department also works to make sure the patients understand ways to stop the spread of the virus and find treatment options for hepatitis and drug addiction.

Drug use by injection spreads hepatitis C.

Reports the Health Department receives of new cases are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Desmaris. Many people with the infection may not know they have it. The department estimates the new cases reported monthly in Pierce County represent fewer than 10 percent of the actual total.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 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.

The use of heroin and other illegal drugs through injection 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 asked 77 needle exchange participants in Pierce County which drugs they injected. The majority (74 percent) said heroin, and 22 percent said methamphetamine. When the UW researchers looked at survey results from 18 needle exchange programs in the state, including Pierce County, researchers found 69 percent injected heroin and 22 percent injected methamphetamine.

Healthcare professionals can treat and cure hepatitis C in as little as eight weeks with very few side-effects, according to health officials. In the past, however, medication wasn’t as effective, took almost a year to work, and caused severe side-effects, so many patients decided not to take them.

Officials said people with previously diagnosed hepatitis C should ask their doctor for a referral to a specialist who can evaluate them for the newer treatment.

Additional information about viral hepatitis is available from Kim Desmarais, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s viral hepatitis coordinator, at 253-798-7681, at,m and Seattle-King County Public Health’s Hepatitis Test and Cure team at 206-263-2017.