Why Everyone Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C
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Hepatitis C (hep C or HCV) is one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the United States. Hep C contributed to at least 14,242 deaths in the U.S. in 2019 alone.
While we don’t have a vaccine for this type of hepatitis to prevent it from spreading (yet), it is treatable and curable for most people.
The number of new viral infections among adults of all ages has quadrupled in the last decade. Why? Many people with hep C are unaware that they’re infected and, as a result, can infect others. Now, leading health organizations recommend that all adults get tested for HCV at least once.
What is hepatitis C?
Symptoms of HCV infection include health problems like fever, fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain and bloating, loss of appetite and weight loss, yellowing of the eyes and skin, swollen blood vessels, and depression. But, most people do not experience severe or long term symptoms.
“Hep C infection may not cause you to feel sick, so you will not always know if you get the infection,” says Patricia Jones, M.D., a hepatologist with the University of Miami Health System. “Once you develop a chronic hep C infection, you need treatment to cure it.”
Even without symptoms, HCV infection can seriously damage and inflame the liver, leading to deadly diseases like cirrhosis and liver cancer. This is true even for those with normal liver enzyme blood tests. Hep C is also associated with other serious conditions including lymphoma. People with hepatitis have higher mortality rates than those without it.
How is hepatitis C transmitted?
HCV spreads from an infected person to person from contact with infected blood. The most common mode of transmission in the U.S. is through intravenous drug use.
The country’s opioid epidemic has contributed to rising infection rates among millennials and others. Although less common, hep C can also be transmitted through childbirth and breastfeeding, sexual contact, and contaminated tattoo needles. It is more common in prison populations.
“While those are the main risk factors, there are other reasons that the Baby Boomer generation, in particular, is at risk for HCV,” says Dr. Jones.
“(Medical) sterilization practices have evolved substantially since these people were young. There are some who got hep C from vaccines because the needles were not sterilized nor single use. There are also people who contracted HCV from blood transfusions before our current screening practices were instituted. These people are at risk and need to be tested.”
Why should you get tested for hepatitis C?
According to Dr. Jones, only 60% of people living with hep C are aware of their infection. An HCV antibody blood test is the only way to know if you were exposed to hep C. If this is positive, additional tests are needed to confirm if you have an active infection.
“Talk to your health care provider to determine if you have ever been tested for hep C,” she says. “It’s possible that you have been tested at some point. At the very least, you should be aware of your status, either positive or negative.”
If you don’t have any of the risk factors for hepatitis C, getting tested once is sufficient. If any of the risk factors apply to you, you should be tested more frequently.
“Only you can know your risk factors. Hopefully, you have a relationship with a healthcare provider who is asking you about your individual risks and providing guidance,” Dr. Jones says.
Why is it important to know your hep C status?
Testing positive for hepatitis C can enable you to receive potentially life-saving antiviral treatment and protect your sexual partners from infection.
“Hopefully, we can treat before people develop complications, such as cirrhosis or liver cancer,” Dr. Jones says. “In addition, treating patients who have already developed cirrhosis will decrease the risk that it will worsen. Treating people with HCV who have cancer may decrease the risk for recurrence of cancer.”
With the new testing recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the aim is to make HCV antibody testing a standard part of your routine physical exam.
“Now that it’s recommended, testing should be covered by all medical insurance companies,” Dr. Jones says. “It’s important that patients are aware and start a dialogue with their healthcare providers, in the event that their provider doesn’t initiate the conversation.”
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.