A task force of national health experts has released a draft recommendation to screen all adults 18 to 79 years for the hepatitis C virus (HCV), noting the opioid epidemic has fueled what has become the most common chronic bloodborne pathogen in the United States.
Cases of acute HCV have increased 3.5-fold over the last decade, particularly among young, white, injection drug users who live in rural areas. Women aged 15 to 44 have also been hit hard by the virus that is spread through contaminated blood.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which makes recommendations followed by primary care clinicians nationwide, has until now recommended that people who are at high risk be tested for hepatitis C, as well as “baby boomers” born between 1945 and 1965.
“Unfortunately, HCV now affects a broader age range than previously with three times as many new infections per year,” said Stanford Health Policy’s Douglas K. Owens, chair of the independent, voluntary panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine.
The Task Force now recommends that clinicians encourage all their adult patients, even those with no symptoms or known liver disease, get a blood test for the virus. Pregnant women should also be screened; from 2009 to 2014, the prevalence of HCV infection among women giving birth has nearly doubled.
“The explosive growth in HCV has been fueled by the opioid epidemic, with the spread of HCV into younger populations,” said Owens, director of the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research. “HCV now kills more Americans than all other reportable infectious diseases combined, including HIV.”
An estimated 4.1 million people in the United States are carrying HCV antibodies; about 2.4 million are living with the virus, according to the Task Force. The HCV infection becomes chronic in 75% to 85% of cases and some of those people develop symptoms such as chronic fatigue and depression, and liver diseases that can range from cirrhosis to liver cancer.
Approximately one-third of people ages 18 to 30 who inject drugs are infected with the virus; 70% to 90% of older injection-drug users are infected.
There currently is no vaccine for hepatitis C although research in the development of a vaccine is underway. But there are effective oral direct-acting antiviral (DAA) medications that can clear the virus from the body, particularly if caught early.
“The good news is that treatment for HCV is far better, and far better tolerated than in the past, offering a cure to most people,” Owens said. “Early identification of HCV is important to prevent long-term complications of HCV including liver failure, liver cancer, and death.”
The Task Force said in a release that there are several key research gaps that could inform the benefit of screening for HCV infection: