The liver disease hepatitis C is a major health issue in the United States—as much as 5 million Americans have hepatitis C, approximately four times the amount of people with HIV. It’s the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the country. What’s more surprising is that 75% of people with hepatitis C don’t know it yet.
Hepatitis C has been called a “silent epidemic” in a Department of Health & Human Services report because it often has no symptoms and can go decades without detection. In the meantime, serious liver damage or even liver cancer may occur.
Recent CDC studies have reported that deaths from hepatitis C are on the rise. In 2007, there were more than 15,000 deaths in the United States from hepatitis C, surpassing the 13,000 deaths from HIV/AIDS in the same year.
People born from 1945 through 1965 have a greater prevalence of hepatitis C than the general population. In fact, 82% of people with the disease in the country are members of the baby boomer generation, and 73% of the deaths from hepatitis C occur in this group.
Those at increased risk for hepatitis C include people who had blood transfusions before 1992, people with tattoos, people who used I.V. drugs even once, and those who work in a health care setting. Certain populations, including African Americans and Hispanics, are also affected by hepatitis C at a significantly higher rate than the general population.
The good news is that for many patients, hepatitis C can be cured, unlike other chronic diseases such as hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS.
Screening for hepatitis C is not currently part of routine testing. Many patients who think they have been tested have not. CDC recently released draft guidelines recommending that all baby boomers have a simple, one-time antibody test to screen for hepatitis C. According to a CDC-sponsored study, such age-based screening could identify more than 800,000 additional cases of chronic hepatitis C infection and, when followed by treatment, could reduce the number of deaths by an additional 121,000 over risk-based screening.
Pharmacists and other health professionals should counsel patients who are members of the baby boomer generation or have any of the risk factors listed above to ask for the hepatitis C screening test at their next physician’s appointment.
In recognition of World Hepatitis Day on July 28, Vertex Pharmaceuticals has launched Better to Know C, a website devoted to information about hepatitis C. More information about the disease, screening, and treatments are available on the website.