Why Hepatitis Testing is Important
Rishika Motiani, MD
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, and May 19 is National Hepatitis Testing Day.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis virus. The three most commonly known infections are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Each is caused by a different virus.
While hepatitis A typically improves without treatment, hepatitis B and C infections can result in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. Vaccines are available to prevent A and B infections, but there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
There is, however, a cure for chronic hepatitis C, and treatment with oral antiviral medicines can cure more than 90 percent of chronic hepatitis C infections.
Hepatitis C is primarily spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Since many people can live with hepatitis C for decades without feeling sick or experiencing any symptoms of disease, testing based on risk factors is critical. Many people diagnosed with hepatitis C do not know how or when they were infected and, if left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis and even liver cancer.
Therefore, it is important for those people diagnosed with the disease to visit a specialist trained in infectious diseases or gastroenterology for treatment.
While anyone can get hepatitis C, studies have found that three in four people with the infection were born between 1945 and 1965 (baby boomers). The reason baby boomers have high rates of hepatitis C is not completely understood. Most are believed to have become infected during the 1960s through 1980s when transmission of hepatitis C was highest.
Given rising rates of liver cancer and high hepatitis C infection rates in this population, testing is especially important.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C. Testing also is recommended for people who inject drugs or use intranasal drugs, patients on hemodialysis, children born to mothers infected with hepatitis C, people with sexual partners who are hepatitis C infected, people with HIV infection and people who have had tattoos or piercings.
Despite these recommendations, only 1 in 10 baby boomers are being tested for the virus, according to a recent study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This is a critically important finding. It shows we have substantial room for improvement and the need for additional efforts to screen and treat this population as a strategy to reduce the rising rates of liver cancer in the United States.