The diagnosis was a surprise for Claudia Dionne: testing during her yearly check-up revealed hepatitis C. The liver-damaging virus was not causing symptoms but for the 4 million people in the United States with hepatitis C it can lead to liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and is the most common reason people need a liver transplant.
But research is changing what comes next for those who learn their diagnosis early. New drugs – Victrelis, Incivek, Harvoni, Olysio and Sovaldi — make treatment easier and more effective and in November, combination treatment of Sovaldi and Olysio was approved. Interferon-free oral combination therapy is available for almost all types of hepatitis C infection.
Without injections or side effects, treatments have become so simple that 12 weeks of pills alone have a 90 to 95 percent success rate for most people — provided they are diagnosed early. All it takes is a simple blood test.
Who is at risk for Hepatitis C?
Anyone who received a blood transfusion before 1990 is at risk for infection. Widespread screening of the blood supply for hepatitis C began in 1991, so anyone who was transfused before then could have been exposed to the virus.
Another source of infection is infected needles used for acupuncture or tattoos performed at unlicensed locations that do not meet federal safety guidelines.
You should be tested if:
• Your mother had Hepatitis C when you were born
• You were born between 1945 and 1965
• You used injection drugs in the past even if it was just one time many years ago
• You had a blood transfusion before 1990
What you should know about testing?
The only way to tell if you are infected is to have a blood test for the hepatitis C virus. If you have your blood tested regularly by your primary care doctor, you shouldn’t assume you have been tested for Hepatitis C. You should specifically ask to have a screening test, which tests for the virus antibody. If the hepatitis C antibody is detected, a confirmation PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test for the virus RNA (genetic material) is recommended.
The CDC recommends testing, regardless of exposure, if you were born between 1945 and 1965. It’s possible to have a risk factor but to have forgotten about it. Requesting a screening based on your age also bypasses the discomfort of having to talk to your doctor about potentially embarrassing things such as admitting to taking drugs and sharing needles.
The CDC estimates that people born in this period are five times more likely to test positive than people who are younger or older. This group accounts for 70 percent of people with Hepatitis C so screening becomes a very efficient way to detect and treat.
Why should you be tested?
If you are treated and your body responds, you can get rid of the virus before liver damage and liver failure. You stop the progression of liver disease. As long we have people who are infected, they are a source of infection for other people. With every patient we treat, we diminish the pool of people who can become ill or can infect others.
Take the next step:
- Ask your physician for the simple blood test for hepatitis C.
- Learn more about liver health.
- Read other blogs about hepititis C.
The University of Michigan Digestive and Liver Health services is one of the largest programs in the country, providing prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract and liver. Our 60-plus physicians are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases of the gastrointestinal system.