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At least 50% of people with Hepatitis C don’t know they’re infected

By Dr. Hazel Dean,

Did you know that hepatitis C virus infection and liver cancer are serious health problems that disproportionately affect African Americans? They are. But today, though there is no vaccine, we have prevention and treatment tools to fight this disease.

What is Hepatitis C?

Let me explain first what hepatitis C is. It is a serious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. The virus is usually spread when blood from a person infected with hepatitis C enters the body of someone who is not infected. Persons infected with this virus often have no symptoms while the virus silently attacks the liver causing inflammation and scarring. The liver injury worsens over time causing serious health problems, including liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Approximately 50 percent of liver cancer cases are related to hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C and the African American Community

According to the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975 – 2012, during 2008 through 2012, non-Hispanic blacks ages 50 to 64 years (born 1955 – 1965) had higher rates of liver cancer than other ethnic groups.  And, more non-Hispanic black men die from liver cancer at an earlier age (60 to 61 years) compared to other racial and ethnic groups.  Overall, data continue to show higher rates of hepatitis C and increased liver cancer rates among individuals born from 1945–1965. People born during these years are six times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults.

Current Trends

An estimated 3.5 million Americans are living with hepatitis C, and at least 50 percent do not know they are infected. Approximately 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with hepatitis C develop a life-long, chronic infection.

What Can We Do?

Because of the silent nature of the disease, a blood test is needed to identify persons infected with hepatitis C virus. To help find some of these unknown infections, CDC and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends a one-time hepatitis C test for all persons born from 1945–1965 regardless of race or ethnicity.

Early detection, care, and treatment can save lives. Testing is the only way to know if someone has hepatitis C.  If detected early, new treatments are available that can cure 90% of hepatitis C infected persons who complete therapy.  Fortunately, these new treatments are safe and have few side-effects.  Once diagnosed, most persons with hepatitis C can be cured in just 8 to 12 weeks, reducing liver cancer risk by 75%.

May is Hepatitis Awareness Month and May 19 is National Hepatitis Testing Day. I encourage you to share information about Hepatitis C, get tested and encourage testing, and learn more about treatment. Together we can help stop the Hepatitis C virus and save lives.

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