Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Opioid Epidemic Leads To Jump In Hepatitis C Cases In Young People

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this Feb. 16, 2017, photo, a discarded syringe sits in the dirt with other debris under a highway overpass where drug users are known to congregate in Everett, Wash.

One result of the opioid epidemic is that cases of hepatitis C are way up. The highest rate of new infections is among 20-somethings. In the past, it was primarily baby boomers who were being treated for the blood-borne disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported new hepatitis C infections in the U.S. nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015. Dr. Blaire Burman, Director of Virginia Mason Medical Center’s hepatitis C clinic in Seattle, says her clinic used to treat mostly baby boomers, but  is now seeing a younger demographic.

“We definitely see patients in their early teens who are injecting and found to be positive, but probably the biggest rise is in the 20 to 30 age group,” Burman said.

She says as IV drug use rates in Seattle and Washington state have risen; so have the number of hepatitis C cases.

Burman says the challenge is convincing young people they need to get tested if they’re shooting up drugs. She says they often don’t see the urgency because they know hepatitis C is curable. But she says if the disease is left untreated it can lead to permanent liver damage and death.

“They don’t seem that concerned about hep C whereas people in the older age group kind of know that hep c can cause cirrhosis and there’s a big stigma attached to that,” Burman said.

To get a handle on just how widespread hepatitis C is in the younger population Virginia Mason Medical Center, Harborview Medical Center and Swedish Medical Center are teaming up to identify patients with hepatitis C who come through the emergency rooms. A three-year grant will be used to conduct the study.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.