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Why You Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C Now

With no early warning signs, nearly half of people with the liver disease don’t know they are infected

Hepatitis C treatment is available but few patients seek treatment from their doctors.
KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

It’s been nearly a decade since safe and effective antiviral treatments for hepatitis C became available, but these lifesaving drugs still aren’t reaching most people with the liver-attacking infection.

new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that only about 1 in 3 people with health insurance get treated for hepatitis C within a year of their diagnosis. This rate is even lower among people with Medicaid insurance.

If left untreated, the viral infection — which affects more than 2 million Americans, many of whom are older adults — can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.

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Experts point to a few barriers that are likely keeping individuals from accessing the medications that can cure more than 95 percent of people who have hepatitis C in a matter of months — and cost is a big one.

Although competition has brought the price down somewhat, initial costs for hepatitis C treatment hovered around $90,000. As a result, many insurance plans set up requirements that patients must meet to get treatment, such as displaying signs of liver damage before starting the medication or abstaining from drugs and alcohol, CDC health officials said in a news briefing on the report. Excessive paperwork can also keep patients from accessing treatment.

“This costs the nation thousands of preventable deaths,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. Roughly 14,000 Americans die from hepatitis C each year.

Stigma may also play a role, since people who inject drugs are at higher risk for contracting hepatitis C. And sometimes people don’t seek treatment if they are in the throes of addiction, says Douglas Dieterich, M.D., director of the Institute for Liver Medicine and professor of medicine in the Division of Liver Diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. He makes it clear, however, that you don’t need to be sober to get treated.

Finally, people may not understand that you don’t need to see a specialist or drive to a large health care facility to get treated for hepatitis C. Your primary care doctor can prescribe the pills; you can also get treated at a federally qualified health center, Dieterich points out.

“These new hepatitis C medications literally put the cure for hepatitis C in the hands of doctors and patients,” Mermin said.

Everyone should ask to get tested

One of the first steps to getting cured is to get tested, experts say. In fact, nearly half the people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it, and symptoms are often absent until after liver damage has occurred.

Current guidelines from the CDC say that every adult should be screened at least once in their lifetime for hepatitis C, regardless of their risk. When asked if there’s an age or time that’s best to complete the testing, Dieterich says “now.”

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People often assume that hepatitis C screenings happen automatically at routine health visits, Dieterich points out, but that likely isn’t the case. So make sure you ask your doctor for the simple blood test, and if it comes back positive, inquire about treatment.

Cases of hepatitis C are growing in the U.S., largely due to the opioid epidemic, and there is no vaccine to prevent it. And while the baby boomer generation used to be the population most affected by the virus (at one point they were five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults), cases among younger people are on the rise. Treatment rates are also lower among younger adults.