The number of diagnosed hepatitis C cases in Iowa has increased more than 200 percent in the past 16 years.

“We have about 2200 people per year getting a diagnosis of hepatitus C now. That makes it third on our list of reportable infectious diseases in the state,” said Randy Mayer of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

He warns tens of thousands of Iowans who have hepatitis C are not yet diagnosed. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne illness that can cause liver failure. Sharing needles is one way the disease is spread. Mayer said that’s why it’s connected to the opioid epidemic, as people turn to injecting heroin after their supplies of pain pills run out.

“If you look at the demographics of people who are diagnosed with hepatitus C, what you see is that more than any other infectious disease it looks like the population of Iowa,” Mayer said. “…Eighty-eight percent of the people are white and it’s about evenly split between men and women.”

Sixty percent of Iowans diagnosed with hepatitis C are “Baby Boomers” — but Mayer said there’s an “epidemic of ongoing transmission” among Iowans between the ages of 20 and 30.

Mayer testified today before a legislative committee reviewing data about the opioid crisis and potential policy solutions. Medicaid will cover treatment of patients who’re diagnosed with both HIV and hepatitis C, but not for Medicaid patients who just have hepatitis C. State public health officials plan to apply for federal funds that may be used to support “syringe exchange” programs. That federal money may be used for expenses like staff and rent, but it cannot be used to buy new syringes.