Federal health experts are calling for more American adults to be screened for hepatitis C than ever before.
Following a study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines recommending that all adults over 18 and pregnant women be screened for hepatitis C.
Doctors can choose not to screen someone if that patient lives in an area where the hepatitis C prevalence is 0.1% or lower, but otherwise the CDC indicates that there should be universal hepatitis C virus screening at last once for all adults 18 years old and older, and during pregnancy.
The study highlighted the emergence of hepatitis C as a serious infection in the United States, with virus rates now surpassing HIV. Acute hepatitis C infections in the U.S. have increased more than three-fold since 2010. In 2017, there were an estimated 45,000 cases of hepatitis C in the U.S. compared to 37,000 cases of HIV.
In fact, there are more hepatitis C infection deaths annually than from HIV in the United States.
Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States. It causes liver inflammation and can lead to liver failure. While it can be transmitted sexually, the most common way it is transmitted is through needles. This can be through blood transfusion or sharing needles during drug use.
Hepatitis C has led to a substantial health care burden. There is no vaccine to prevent the infection and over half of people who acquire hep C develop chronic illnesses. However, deaths from hepatitis C are considered largely preventable. There are many therapies available to achieve a “virological cure,” when the hepatitis C infection is undetected in the blood 12 weeks after treatment. Patients treated with antivirals often experience a virological cure.
This is why the new guidelines are key, according to the CDC. If a virological cure can be possible for many patients, it is key to test more adults than previously recommended.
Prior recommendations called for testing among adults born 1945 through 1965, and for those with risk factors, such as liver disease or drug use history, regardless of age.
Roughly 40% of Americans with hepatitis C are unaware they have the virus. The new recommendations may help some of these patients become aware of the infection, which can be especially important for those with underlying health conditions, according to the CDC.
“The new universal screening recommendations augment prior risk factor screening approaches, and will likely increase the number of persons living with HCV infection who are identified and treated,” CDC researchers wrote.