RALEIGH — It is estimated there are more than 227,000 people living with viral hepatitis in North Carolina, and approximately half of people with chronic hepatitis are unaware of their infection. Long-term viral hepatitis infection raises the risk of liver cancer and end stage liver disease. Due to the high prevalence and underdiagnosis of viral hepatitis, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes May as Hepatitis Awareness Month and May 19 as Hepatitis Testing Day.
During Hepatitis Awareness Month, the NCDHHS Division of Public Health is encouraging residents to learn the risks of liver disease, get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B and get tested for hepatitis B and hepatitis C. In April 2020, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released updated HCV testing recommendations that promote one lifetime HCV test, screening during each pregnancy and repeat testing for individuals who are at higher risk. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Hepatitis A, B and C can produce similar symptoms, but they are spread in different ways. Hepatitis B and C are spread through exposure to infected blood. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted through sexual contact. Hepatitis A is spread through food, water or objects that have been in contact with an infected person. Everyone can help prevent the spread of hepatitis by getting vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, using safer sex practices, avoiding sharing syringes or medical supplies, using harm reduction strategies and by using only tattoo artists with a valid permit and piercers from an established business. Resources are also available for some of those at higher risk by county at epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/cd/diseases/hepatitis.html.
Beginning in 2009, North Carolina has seen a marked increase in acute hepatitis C cases, followed closely by increases in acute hepatitis B in 2012. A prolonged outbreak of hepatitis A began in April 2018 among men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and people experiencing homelessness. These increases correlate with reported increases in overdose during the same timeline.
On Feb. 16, 2022, the NC Viral Hepatitis Task Force released the state hepatitis plan — Viral Hepatitis in North Carolina: Comprehensive Response Recommendations. This plan was developed over the course of more than two years by groups across the state that convened to create strategies and issue recommendations to reduce hepatitis A, B and C in North Carolina and increase access to care and treatment.
“As the number of people with viral hepatitis continues to increase, it is paramount that we make prevention, screening and treatment available”, said State Epidemiologist and Epidemiology Section Chief Dr. Zack Moore. “This plan from the Viral Hepatitis Task Force will help focus our efforts to expand these services on the clinician and system levels to address viral hepatitis in our state.”
The NCDHHS Division of Public Health encourages all North Carolinians to speak with their health care providers about hepatitis testing and vaccination. Anyone who does not have a health care provider should visit a local public health agency or community-based organization for linkage to these services.