You may have noticed television advertisements for a particular pill to treat hepatitis C. The product has had its detractors due to the high cost, but one benefit of the $100 million television ad campaign is that it has brought awareness to the blood-borne disease that affects about one in 30 individuals born between 1945 and 1965.
According to the CDC, about 75 percent of individuals with hepatitis C are baby boomers.
The virus that attacks the liver is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and is the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States. Many of those who are infected with the disease remain unaware that they have it.
The CDC estimates that about 70 to 80 percent of people with acute hepatitis C will not suffer from any symptoms.
A simple blood test can lead to a cure, according to Dr. John D. Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC Pinnacle. This hasn’t always been the case. In the past, treatment for the condition involved a long course of therapy with interferon injections.
“The drug was not well-received by the body and was wrought with side effects,” Goldman said.
These days the hepatitis C course of treatment is much shorter and easier on the patient. “Now we treat patients for a total of 8-12 weeks,” he said. “A single daily pill eradicates the virus in more than 90 percent of those who are treated.”
The CDC website explained that baby boomers are more than five times more likely to contract hepatitis C compared to the rest of the population. Many were unknowingly infected with the disease when they were in their teens and 20s via blood transfusions or other health care exposures prior to 1992 when universal precautions and widespread blood screening began.
Additional at-risk individuals include those who have injected illegal drugs, patients who have received long-term hemodialysis treatment, people living with HIV, children born to mothers with hepatitis C and those with known exposure, such as health care workers who have been in contact with needlesticks involving blood from a patient with the disease.
Goldman talked about the current situation in conjunction with the opioid epidemic, noting that those who inject the drugs contribute to the growing number of cases of hepatitis C.
“Prior to that, cases were going down, now they are going back up,” he said.
He ticks off a list of other behaviors that can place individuals at risk, from nasal ingestion of cocaine, to getting tattoos in an unlicensed setting, to IV drug use and in rarer cases, sexual activity with an infected person.
“Individuals who engage in certain at-risk behaviors may need to be screened more frequently,” he said.
Each year, more people die from hepatitis C, than from HIV. The CDC estimates that the national number of acute hepatitis C cases was about 41,200 in 2016.
Because so few are aware that they have it, lawmakers in Pennsylvania saw fit to enact a hepatitis C Screening Act, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law in July 2016. The legislation requires all individuals born between 1945 and 1965 who receive inpatient or outpatient health services to be offered a hepatitis C screening test.
Early detection is key to preventing further damage, and because the screening is a CDC recommendation, most insurances cover the test. According to experts in the medical field, the importance of undergoing screening cannot be understated. The longer the virus goes undetected, the greater the risk of developing serious liver damage, including liver cancer and cirrhosis.
“But those who do undergo a screening have an extremely good chance of recovery,” Goldman said.