Since 2010, more Americans have died of Hepatitis C each year than HIV – and the numbers are rising. Approximately 3.2 million Americans between the ages of 45 and 65 are estimated to have the disease and not know it, prompting Federal health officials to consider recommending that those born between 1945 and 1965 get tested. New research has shown that testing and treating millions of baby boomers would be worth the cost, saving thousands of lives.
Those most at risk are people who might have been exposed to contaminated needles because of drug use, unlicensed tattoo parlors or from blood products or blood transfusions prior to 1992 – when routine screening for the virus began. Hepatitis C may also be sexually transmitted – although not very efficiently.
I might be at risk – now what?
Hepatitis C is dangerous because it can lurk in the body for decades before appearing as cirrhosis, liver failure or cancer. In spite of alarming reports that Hepatitis C is incurable, that is not the case. While available Hepatitis C treatments are still far from perfect, we have come a long way in curing nearly a majority of patients with Hepatitis C since its identity was revealed just 20 years ago. Ongoing clinical trials promise even better cure rates of over 90 percent – with shorter durations of therapy. Unfortunately, unlike Hepatitis B, we still lack a vaccine for Hepatitis C.
It’s important to get tested because the FDA recently approved two new antiviral drugs for the treatment of Hepatitis C that promise to cure many more people than was ever thought possible. This class of drugs is called HCV protease inhibitors and they are used as a third component in addition to two current drugs, pegylated interferon and ribavirin.
Testing for Hepatitis C is as simple as a one-time finger stick in the doctor’s office – similar to the process folks would use to check their blood sugar. The test is called OraQuick Rapid HCV Test and also is FDA approved.
Let’s make Hepatitis C a thing of the past
Because Hepatitis C is only transmitted through exchange of blood and body fluids, we are hopeful that – with diagnosis and treatment – the disease can be completely wiped out over the next few decades. The only sure way to combat the spread of Hepatitis C is by making diagnostic testing routine – the same way we now check for high cholesterol and other common health issues.
If you are concerned about Hepatitis C or would like to be tested, contact your primary care physician.
Benedict J. Maliakkal, M.D., is an associate professor of Medicine at URMC and the medical director of the Liver Transplant program at Strong Memorial Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine, gastroenterology and transplant hepatology. He specializes in viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, and liver/GI diseases in patients with HIV. As a transplant hepatologist, he takes care of patients with end stage liver disease from all causes and also those with liver tumors both benign and malignant. He is involved in multiple clinical trials involving new medications for Hepatitis C and other causes of liver diseases, as well as medications and procedures that can help manage complications of cirrhosis of the liver. To contact him, call (585) 275-4711