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Opioid Epidemic Fuels Exponential Rise in Hepatitis C Virus

The Hepatitis C virus kills more people in the United States today than any other virus, increasing 3.5 times over the last decade mostly because of the opioid epidemic. In addition, the prevalence of women giving birth to babies with an HCV infection has almost doubled.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force believes 2.4 million people are living with the HCV virus in the United States, with 75% to 85% of these cases causing people to develop depression, chronic fatigue, and liver diseases such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Almost one-third of people ages 18 to 30 infected with the virus injected drugs like opioids, and 70% to 90% of older infected users once injected drugs in the past.

The frightening rise in Hepatitis C infections has caused the Task Force to recommend that clinicians screen all adults 18 to 79 years old for the virus, even if they are not presenting any symptoms. Medicine hematologist Amanda Cheung told Scope that patients with chronic HCV often do not have symptoms of infection for decades after exposure. Consequently, once the virus has been discovered it has “already started to wreak havoc on their bodies and causes development of cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer, or death.”

Universal screening is imperative. If discovered early, today the Hepatitis C infection can be cured for about 95% of patients using oral medications with few side effects.

“With such an effective means for cure, it only makes sense to universally screen patients,” Cheung quoted to Scope. “Implementation of universal screening will also decrease the likelihood of primary care physicians forgetting who does or does not need screening — and it avoids the sometimes uncomfortable discussion with the patient about why they have been labeled as high risk and needing further screening.”

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Posted by Jay Chang

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