Hepatitis C rates in Oregon soar above national average

When it comes to viral infections in Oregon, hepatitis C is far deadlier than AIDS.

A report out this week shows that infections from hepatitis C remained fairly stable in Oregon between 2009 and 2013 but deaths from the virus climbed steadily over that period. They're now six times higher than deaths from AIDS.

"There are 5,000 people living with HIV in our state," said Dr. Ann Thomas, a public health physician. "There are almost 10 times as many people living with hepatitis C."

Oregon doesn't stack up well against the rest of the country either. The death rate from hepatitis C is about 80 percent higher than the national rate. And Oregon's rate of new infections is about 50 percent higher than the one nationwide. It's not clear why. Most new infections are believed to be traced to injection drug use.

About 80 percent of the people who die from hepatitis C in Oregon are between 45 to 64 years old.

"That's premature mortality," Thomas said.

There are new treatments out for hepatitis C and they're effective. But the problem is they're very expensive, and often people don't know they're infected. It can take decades for symptoms to appear.

Among people diagnosed between 2009 and 2013, nearly 65 percent were born between 1945 and 1965. Many were infected through blood transfusions or donated tissue and organs. It wasn't until 1992 that blood donations were universally screened for the hepatitis C antibody.

Thomas said the state has been hit with a big increase in liver cancer, with over half the cases in 2012 traced to hepatitis C. The virus also causes cirrhosis of the liver.

She recommended that baby boomers get tested.

"Whether you have risk factors or not, everyone born in that age group should have a one-time test done," Thomas said.

She'd also like to see more done to prevent newly acquired infections with addiction treatment programs and needle exchanges. Eight counties in Oregon offer needle exchange programs: Benton, Clackamas, Deschutes, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Jackson and Multnomah County.

"We need to prevent new cases," Thomas said.

-- Lynne Terry

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