liver disease

The Quick, Easy Blood Test That Could Save Your Life

December 18, 2012 at 11:37 am , by

In addition to your mammogram and colonoscopy, the CDC wants you to add another screening to your list: a one-time blood test for hepatitis C.

Ever heard of it? Don’t worry if you haven’t; you’re not alone. When people find out my father died of hepatitis C, I can count on two reactions. The first is, of course, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” The second is confusion.

Hepatitis C starts out as a virus in your blood after a needle stick, blood transfusion or other blood exposure. Some people exposed to the virus can clear it, but for 75 to 85 percent of people the infection becomes chronic and can lead to liver scarring (known as cirrhosis), liver failure and liver cancer. Chronic infections may not cause symptoms for 20 to 30 years, when damage to the liver is already done.

“There are between 3 and 4 million people infected, and the vast majority of them are baby boomers who don’t know it,” says Martha Saly, executive director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable. That’s why the CDC recently announced recommendations urging anyone born between 1945 and 1965 to get tested.

Before 1992, there wasn’t a test for it, so it was impossible to screen for hepatitis C in the blood supply. As a result, many people were infected from a transfusion they got years ago. Other common ways of transmission include a history of needle drug use or contact with unsterile instruments, say, at a tattoo and piercing parlor or through a needle stick, says Shmuel Shoham, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. But there are plenty of people who don’t know how they got it.

While new cases of hepatitis C have remained low since the early ’90s, experts are bracing for the crop of people who were infected years ago and need to be treated. Deaths from hepatitis C have risen steadily for more than a decade to more than 15,000 in 2007, says Bryce Smith, lead health scientist from the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis.

When my dad was diagnosed in 2004, no one ever talked about hep C, and by the time he got tested he was already really sick. It’s bittersweet to see it in the news so much lately now that new treatments bring the cure rate up to 80 percent. I know the thought of another screening test may sound daunting, but trust me, it’s worth the peace of mind.  If every boomer did it, the CDC estimates that it will save more than 120,000 lives.

Infographic via the CDC. Click here for an enlarged, shareable version you can post on your Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest to spread the word about screening for hepatitis C.