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CDC: Many don't know they have hepatitis C

Tuesday May 7, 2013
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Only half of Americans identified as ever having had hepatitis C received follow-up testing to determine whether they still were infected, according to a CDC analysis of data from a multi-area study.

“Many people who test positive on an initial hepatitis C test are not receiving the necessary follow-up test to know if their body has cleared the virus or if they are still infected,” CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said in a news release.

“Complete testing is critical to ensure that those who are infected receive the care and treatment for hepatitis C that they need in order to prevent liver cancer and other serious and potentially deadly health consequences.”

Testing for hepatitis C includes an antibody test to determine whether an individual has been infected with the virus. For people with a positive antibody test result, a follow-up test — an RNA test — should be given to determine whether they are still infected so they can get needed care and treatment.

A small number of people with antibody-positive tests will have cleared the infection on their own, but about 80% remain infected and can go on to develop significant health problems.

For the study, published in the May issue of Vital Signs, researchers looked at data from eight areas across the nation funded by CDC to conduct enhanced surveillance for hepatitis C virus infection. Of those cases with antibody-positive results, only 51% of the cases also included a follow-up RNA test result that identified current infection. Without follow-up testing, the other 49% likely are unaware whether they are infected and therefore cannot get appropriate medical care, the CDC noted.

Data included in this analysis also underscore the severe impact of hepatitis C among baby boomers. In the eight areas studied, 67% of all reported cases of current infection were among those born from 1945 through 1965. Deaths among people with hepatitis C also were more common among those born during these years, accounting for 72% of all reported deaths.

“Hepatitis C has few noticeable symptoms, and left undiagnosed it threatens the health of far too many Americans — especially baby boomers,” said John Ward, MD, director of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis. “Identifying those who are currently infected is important because new effective treatments can cure the infection better than ever before, as well as eliminate the risk of transmission to others.”

Approximately 3 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C and up to 3 of 4 do not know they are infected, according to the CDC. The vast majority of those affected were born from 1945 through 1965. Left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage, including liver cancer. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and the most common indication for liver transplants.

In fact, liver cancer is the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related death in the United States, the CDC noted. Deaths from hepatitis C have nearly doubled over the past decade and account for more than 15,000 deaths each year.

In light of increasing evidence that many patients are not receiving the follow-up test, as well as recent changes in testing technologies and the availability of new, effective treatments for hepatitis C, the CDC has issued updated guidance for healthcare providers on hepatitis C testing. These guidelines reinforce the recommended process for hepatitis C testing and underscore the importance of conducting follow-up RNA testing for all patients with a positive antibody test result to help ensure people infected with hepatitis C are properly tested and identified.

The CDC recommends that everyone in the United States born from 1945 through 1965 be tested for hepatitis C. The agency also recommends that other populations at increased risk for hepatitis C get tested, including those who received blood transfusions or organ transplants before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992, or those who ever have injected drugs.

Read the report and finds links to more information about hepatitis C: www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/hepatitisc/index.html.


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