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Q&A: Hepatitis C Screening

My doctor has advised me to get screened for hepatitis C. Is this really necessary given that I have never used illicit drugs?

Hepatitis C triggers inflammation that eventually becomes chronic. Over time, it destroys infected liver cells and also causes cirrhosis (scarring) that decreases blood flow through the liver and impairs liver function. Cirrhosis also can lead to liver cancer. Unfortunately, many people with hepatitis C are unaware they are infected because the damage it causes may not become apparent until late in the course of the disease.

Hepatitis C spreads through contact with contaminated blood. You are correct in thinking that people who use illicit drugs are at greater risk of contracting the virus if they share dirty needles. But you also may be at risk if you have been tattooed with a needle that was not sterile. Another risk factor is having had a blood transfusion or received any blood products before 1990 (when the United States instituted routine screening of donated blood products). Baby boomers (people born between 1945 and 1965) fall into the latter category, since they may have undergone surgery and transplant procedures at a time when donated blood products weren’t screened. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) both recommend that baby boomers get tested once for hepatitis C unless they have ongoing risk factors. Recently the USPSTF expanded this recommendation to anyone between 18 and 79

Despite the CDC/USPSTF recommendations, research suggests that only about one in 10 baby boomers get screened. Screening rates are particularly low in women, African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Screening involves a simple blood test that could alert you to the fact you should take steps to reduce further liver damage—and treatment could save your life.

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