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Inside E Street

Silent Epidemic: Hepatitis C

More than 3 million Americans, most of them boomers, carry the potentially deadly virus

The hepatitis C virus is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver failure in the United States, and the disease has the ability to lie dormant in patients for decades.

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Hepatitis C, or HCV, was not identified until 1989 — too late for millions of Americans. Because health officials had little understanding of the disease, screening of medical blood supplies for HCV did not begin until the early ’90s. As a result, many Americans who received blood transfusions, got tattoos or used intravenous drugs are at a major risk of having contracted the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its screening guidelines and may recommend that all boomers be tested for HVC. Startling statistics indicate that more than 90 percent of all people who have hepatitis C were born between the years 1945 and 1965.

Doctor surveys Hepatitis C patient

The hepatitis C virus is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver failure in the United States — AARP Broadcast Screengrab

The silver lining? The disease is now curable, and that could help head off a potentially catastrophic epidemic.  The FDA has approved two new antiviral medications, Incivek and Victrelis; either drug in combination with the standard two-drug treatment form a powerful “triple cocktail” that achieves a cure rate of up to 80 percent. This treatment can cost up to $60,000 per patient, but a Stanford University study shows that it is nonetheless cost effective. HCV treatment has opened a billion-dollar market, with biotech and pharmaceutical firms now jockeying to establish themselves as the next standard of care.

This episode of Inside E Street features John Ward, M.D., the director of the CDC’s Viral Hepatitis Program, and Douglas Dieterich, M.D., a leading expert who has been fighting HCV on a very personal level.

Also of interest: 7 commonly misdiagnosed illnesses. »

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