Some hospitals are increasing their screening frequency for hepatitis C.
A small purple-and-white sign hangs on the waiting room wall in Highland Hospital’s emergency department in Oakland.
In English and Spanish it reads: “Our ER’s policy for patients 18 to 75 years old: HIV and Hepatitis C tests are done once a year if you are having other blood tests.”
It’s a policy that emergency room physician Doug White and his colleagues instituted four years ago. Since up to half of people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected, testing is the first step toward eradicating the deadly, blood-borne virus, he said.
“Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver failure in the U.S.,” White said. “It’s the number one cause of liver cancer. Number one cause of liver transplants. It’s a phenomenon of epic proportion.”
Between 2.7 million and 3.9 million Americans have hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus can remain dormant for years, and by the time symptoms arise, the organs may already be damaged. Except for flu, hepatitis C takes more lives than all other CDC-tracked infectious diseases combined — and that includes HIV, tuberculosis and other more prominent diseases. In 2015, 19,629 Americans died from hepatitis C, mostly from liver disease caused by the virus.
For years the few treatments for hepatitis C had severe side effects and were not very effective at eliminating the virus from the body. But a new generation of powerful drugs came out in late 2013. These drugs have minimal side effects and usually require taking just one pill a day for two to three months. The cure rate is more than 90 percent.
Given this powerful new option, it’s possible to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat in the U.S. by 2030, researchers say. But social and financial barriers remain, so it would take a concerted effort by government, health plans, doctors and hospitals.
Dr. White hopes Highland Hospital can be a leader in the fight, and a model for other hospitals tackling the hepatitis C epidemic.
“Hepatitis C has gone from a disease that I had no incentive to look for to diagnose, because I couldn’t do anything about it, to essentially a curable disease with treatment that’s well tolerated,” White said.
Highland staffers test nearly everyone who comes to the ER and gets blood drawn. They’ve built a robust electronic medical system that reminds medical staff to test for hepatitis C when doing other blood tests, as long as the patient hasn’t had this test in the past year. Highland was one of the first ERs to test for hepatitis C like this nationwide. That helps flag infections among low-income or undocumented patients who use the ER for primary care.
|Read Full Article: There’s a Cure for Hepatitis C. Why Are So Many People Still Dying from It? | State of Health | KQED News|