Hepatitis C is on the rise at a rate of 1 in 33 people being exposed to the virus. Most people are unaware they are infected until diagnosed with liver failure or liver cancer. Early symptoms such as fatigue are often difficult to recognize, making early diagnosis through proactive screening essential.
The virus spreads through infected blood and can take years to show symptoms. While some cases of the virus clear on their own, 80% of those infected develop chronic hepatitis C. Nearly 20% of chronic cases will develop cirrhosis, a condition that slowly shuts down the liver from the inside out through fibrosis.
“When you get a scar, the skin heals itself by laying down collagen,” said infectious disease expert Sugat Patel, MD, from Samaritan Health Services. “The virus damages the liver in a similar way. Your body will try to heal the liver, but it inadvertently causes fibrosis, a type of scarring that permanently damages your liver.”
Baby boomers currently make up the majority of cases due to unscreened blood transfusions and other exposures before the virus was identified in 1989. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases are rising among young people, with shared needles the main cause of new infections. Infected mothers can also pass the virus to their babies.
“The good news is the treatment options for hepatitis C have greatly increased over the past decade,” said Dr. Patel. “The only treatment option used to be two to four months of chemo. Now most cases are treated by taking direct‑acting antivirals — that target stages of the virus reproductive cycle — for two to three months with little to no side effects and an astonishing 95% success rate.”
People don’t often identify themselves as being at risk, but it’s safer to be screened and know you aren’t a transmitter.
“Get tested,” urged Dr. Patel.
Everyone should get tested at least once, especially those born between 1945 and 1965. Those engaging in high‑risk behavior such as drug use or having multiple sexual partners should get tested every six months. Talk to your primary care provider about getting a hepatitis C antibody blood test.