Hepatitis Awareness Blitz Marks 25th Year Anniversary Discovery

May 28, 2014
Catherine Kolonko

Noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of hepatitis C, health officials ramped up a public awareness campaign during the month of May to encourage more testing for hepatitis among at-risk populations.

Noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of hepatitis C, health officials ramped up a public awareness campaign during the month of May to encourage more testing for hepatitis among at-risk populations.

A US Department of Health and Human Services call to action plan designated May 19 as National Hepatitis Testing Day. The plan, which was recently updated, lays out goals to achieve by the end of the decade that are related to research, education, treatment and prevention of viral hepatitis, which is caused by infection of hepatitis A, B, C, D or E.

“Education and awareness has been a big part of the call to action,” said Dr. John Ward, Division of Viral Hepatitis Director for the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC website features the 5-Minute Hepatitis Risk Assessment Tool, an online assessment tool to help people decide whether they should be screened for hepatitis, Ward said. It takes about 60 seconds to answer a few questions to determine whether a person should be tested for hepatitis B or C or get vaccinated for hepatitis A or B.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the discovery of hepatitis C, a blood borne virus for which there is no vaccine. Before it was discovered in 1989, blood supplies in hospitals and other health care settings were not screened for hepatitis C, meaning someone could have been exposed to the virus and infected without knowing it.

The CDC calculated that hundreds of thousands of people were becoming infected each year in an era when injection drug use and drug experimentation among younger generations multiplied the risk of transmission from tainted blood supplies. Hepatitis C testing is recommended for anyone born from 1945 to 1965, the baby boom population which has about a five times higher prevalence of the virus than other adults, according to Ward.

Hepatitis C has been called a silent epidemic because many people are unaware of their infection and are progressing to end stage liver disease or cancer in the absence of good care and treatment. The good news, said Ward, is that recent advancements in hepatitis C treatments are showing high cure rates.

While the CDC does not fund testing, it does coordinate with many organizations across the country to inform the public about community events set up to screen for hepatitis.

Testing settings vary, but they typically are confidential environments where clinicians take a drop of blood from a fingertip to test a person for virus antibodies that would indicate a hepatitis infection, Ward said. If the result is positive, a second test is needed to look for hepatitis in the blood stream.

About one third of people who are infected with hepatitis C clear the virus with the help of their own immune system. But the remainder two thirds don’t, and have chronic infection potentially for life, unless they get treated, Ward said.

Many screening events held throughout the month were sponsored by non-profit groups who do not charge for the service, Ward said. Health insurance plans may also offer hepatitis testing at no cost to the at-risk patient since it has been endorsed by the U.S.Preventative Services Task Force as a grade B recommendation, he said.

“May 19 is national hepatitis testing day but every day is a good day to learn your status if you’re at risk for hepatitis C,” Ward concluded, “including people who are in this baby boom generation.”