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Oregon's growing hepatitis C problem

Adventist Health Health and Wellness

By population size, Oregon has the highest rate of deaths caused by hepatitis C (HCV) in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C is dangerous because over time it can lead to liver cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.

And the problem isn't just in Oregon. The entire country is seeing a spike in hepatitis C infections, mainly due to the opioid epidemic and injection drug use.

Hepatitis C is now the deadliest infection in the U.S., causing more deaths than 60 other diseases combined, including HIV, pneumococcal disease and tuberculosis.

"Considering the population size of the state, Oregon has a particularly high rate of hepatitis C cases compared to the rest of the country," says Dr. Jaime Aranda-Michel, a nationally-recognized hepatologist at Adventist Health Portland. "This is a serious public health issue, and it's important for high-risk people to talk with their doctor and request the test if they believe they could have been exposed to hepatitis C."

How is hepatitis C transmitted?

FACT: Hepatitis C can survive outside the body at room temperature on surfaces for up to three weeks.

There is a stigma surrounding hepatitis C, that it's passed only through injection drug use. And while that's often the way it's transmitted among newly infected young people, anyone can get hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is passed through blood and body fluids, so in addition to drug use, it can be passed through contaminated needles in general. People at risk include those who get tattoos or piercings in unregulated or informal environments.

While it can also be transmitted through shared personal hygiene items and sexual intercourse, those methods carry a lower risk. 

Baby boomers should get tested for hepatitis C

Hepatitis C isn't just a problem among people who use injection drugs. It's a significant problem among the baby-boom generation-people who were born between 1945 and 1965.

Hepatitis C wasn't discovered until 1989, and screening blood for pathogens and viruses didn't start until 1992, so people who had a blood transfusion or medical procedure before that time are at risk for having been exposed.

"Many of the patients we see who do have hepatitis C are people in their fifties, sixties and even seventies," says Aranda-Michel. "Because there usually aren't any symptoms for the disease, a lot of our patients have had it for years, even decades, and are just finding out."

Baby boomers are five times more likely to have the disease than other generations, and account for three quarters of all the cases in the U.S. While 1 in 25 people in this age group have the disease, most don't know it.

"Testing for hepatitis C is not standard during annual exams, so baby boomers should ask their doctor about getting tested," Aranda-Michel adds.

What are symptoms for hepatitis C?

Up to 80 percent of people with hepatitis C show no symptoms, which is why it often goes undiagnosed until later in life. That's also why the disease is so deadly.

Over time, the disease slowly damages the liver to an irreparable point, even cancer.

Symptoms for HCV can show up anywhere from two weeks to six months after being infected. According to the CDC, some symptoms that might appear include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice

FibroScan® helps detect and diagnose liver diseases

Adventist Health Portland is one of only a few Oregon hospitals that uses a new technology called FibroScan® to detect and diagnose chronic liver diseases, including liver cirrhosis and fatty liver disease, both of which can be caused by hepatitis C.

"We work with our patients, no matter what their diagnosis is, to create a plan to help improve liver health, from improving diet and getting exercise, to quitting smoking and alcohol consumption," adds Aranda-Michel.

Using the new technology, Dr. Aranda-Michel and the team at Adventist Health Portland can monitor patient liver health to help them improve their overall health and wellness.

Treatment options for hepatitis C

Treatment is available for people living with hepatitis C.

There are a number of different medications on the market that, in addition to making lifestyle improvements, can help treat the infection. Approved medications that can treat hepatitis C include HARVONI®, SOVALDI® and OLYSIO®, among others.

If you're a baby boomer or if you believe you are at risk of having hepatitis C, talk to your doctor about getting tested. For help finding a doctor, give us a call at 503-261-6929 or visit