Hepatitis C is both preventable and curable, yet it continues to be responsible for more American deaths than any other disease.
In 2014, deaths related to hepatitis C reached a record high, according to a recent report from the CDC. In fact, according to a second CDC study, in 2013, hepatitis C–related deaths were higher than those caused by 60 other infectious diseases combined, including HIV.
The hepatitis C virus is deadly, although it can lie in wait in a patient’s blood for decades without causing symptoms. End-stage hepatitis C results in jaundice, cirrhosis, and liver failure, as the disease slowly but surely attacks the liver; for some people, it eventually causes death. However, the disease is also preventable and curable. While the CDC study says that old cases of hepatitis C largely come from baby boomers who have received unsafe blood transfusions and injections, a new set of cases stems from intravenous drug users.
The number of acute cases has more than doubled between 2010 and 2014. The virus’ almost-invisible initial symptoms are partially to blame—about half of the people who have hepatitis C don’t know they’re infected. Emalie Huriaux, the director of federal and state Affairs at Project Inform, says that, since the liver can be damaged over a number of years, “people may not have any clear symptoms, so they might not seek a test.” There’s also no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Instead, prevention relies on increased screenings. According to Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the chief health officer at the Baltimore Health Care for the Homeless, “Getting testing out more consistently will help diagnose people at an earlier stage.” These screenings are often difficult to obtain, though. Ryan Clary, the executive director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, explains that the primary problem is that “there’s a lack of awareness, there’s a lack of education, and there’s a lack of widespread use of screening guidelines among medical providers.”
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