May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month. The CDC has designated May 19th, 2016 as National Hepatitis Testing Day in the U.S. This campaign is particularly timely this year given the report released this Wednesday by the CDC which states that new infections and deaths caused by Hepatitis C (HCV) are at the highest rates ever reported. The number of acute cases of Hepatitis C rose from 850 in 2010 to 2,194 in 2014. There were 19,659 deaths caused by HCV in 2014, a sharp rise from 15,106 deaths reported in 2007.
Hepatitis C has few noticeable initial symptoms, so most who are infected are unaware of their status until the illness causes severe symptoms such as liver inflammation and scarring. This means that it is likely that there are many more undiagnosed and underreported infections attributable to HCV than noted in this report. Dr. John Ward, Director of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, states that the estimate of actual new infections in the U.S. is closer to 30,000 per year. Chronic and untreated Hepatitis C infections can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.
Americans who fall into the “Baby Boomer” demographic – people born between 1945 and 1965 – are at high risk for having chronic and undiagnosed Hepatitis C infections. This is due to many in this group receiving blood transfusions and organ transplants prior to 1992, when HCV screening of donated blood and organs became standard. However, the recent rise in new infections is largely attributed to infections spread by persons who inject illegal drugs (PWID). This cohort is comprised mainly of younger people, and also lends to an increased risk of HCV transmission from mother to child, as many of the women in this high-risk group are of child-bearing age.
Screening for Hepatitis C requires a simple blood test. However, this screening is still not widely conducted on many in the population. The CDC is trying to address this issue by raising awareness both amongst the public and the health care system of the risk factors for HCV infection and the long-term benefits of early detection and treatment. The existence of highly effective curative drug treatments for HCV infections allow acute infections to be easily treated and will greatly reduce the long-term and potentially deadly health complications that arise from chronic Hepatitis C infections.
If you haven’t been recently screened for HCV, ask your health care provider for a test.
You can learn more about all types of Hepatitis infections at the CDC’s website at http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/index.htm.