New Universal Screening Guidelines for Hepatitis C
MARCH 02, 2020
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 300 million people across the globe are unaware they’re living with viral hepatitis. And unlike other types of hepatitis, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C (HCV).
HCV is linked to more deaths in the U.S. than the next reportable 60 infectious diseases combined—including HIV and tuberculosis. While screening guidelines previously targeted baby boomers, experts say universal screening is needed.
“HCV rates among younger adults is on the rise, fueled in large part by injection drug use associated with the opioid epidemic,” says Camilla Graham, MD, MPH, an infectious disease specialist at BIDMC. “Since 2004, infection rates have risen 133%, with the most dramatic increases within the 18-29 and 30-39 age groups.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now advises HCV screening in all adults aged 18-79 years, regardless of known risk factors as well as for teens who engage in injection drug use.
“Universal screening is important because many people don’t know how or when they were infected, and you can live decades without symptoms,” says BIDMC’s Michael Curry, MD, Section Chief, Hepatology. “If left untreated, HCV can cause serious liver damage, and by the time symptoms do appear, the damage is usually advanced.”
The only way to know if you have HCV is a blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test. “Testing for HCV is simple,” Curry says. “The test looks for antibodies to the virus, and if those are found, another test looks for active infection. Anyone with active infection should receive treatment.”
For decades, the most common treatment for HCV was a series of painful shots that could involve a year-long process with chemo-like side effects. However, treatment for HCV is now on the cutting-edge of medicine.
“It’s curable,” Curry says. “With the new all-oral medications, cure rates are 99% and in most cases, are accomplished with only 8-12 weeks of treatment.”