Doc Talk: What is hepatitis C and who should be tested?

06/18/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a virus that infects the liver and can cause serious liver damage and even death. It is spread by exposure to blood or body fluids that contain the virus. An estimated 3million adults in the United States are infected, but most of them don’t know it. However, early diagnosis and treatment are important, to help limit damage to the liver.

Until recently doctors only tested for HCV in patients who showed signs of liver damage or who fell into high-risk categories. High-risk individuals include those who received blood products with clotting factors before 1987 or received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.

Also included are people who ever injected drugs, have HIV, or have been on kidney dialysis for several years. Babies born to a mother with HCV are at risk, as are health care or public safety workers who have been stuck with a needle or other sharp object contaminated with blood or body fluids.

About a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended screening all baby boomers, people born between 1945 and 1965. During these years, HCV screening of blood and blood products was far less sophisticated than it is now. If you fall into this age group, don’t be unduly alarmed. Only 3 percent of these individuals are infected. However, it is estimated that screening individuals in this age group could reveal an additional 800,000 infections and save 120,000 lives.

The screening requires only a simple blood test. If the screening test is positive, a more specific test is performed to confirm the presence of hepatitis C. Then the patient and physician can discuss treatment options. Great strides have been made in the treatment of this virus. The goal is to prevent progression to cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease and/or liver cancer, which is universally fatal. With early recognition and treatment, many patients are able to live long, healthy lives.

As with so many things in health care, the process works best if responsibility is shared between patients and health care providers. The next time you see your doctor, ask if you should be tested for HCV. You might want to go a step further and ask your family, friends and neighbors to talk to their doctors about HCV testing. Being proactive can save your life or the life of a loved one.

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