VA Maryland Health Care System
Getting Screened for Hep C
There's good news and great news. The good news is that the VA Maryland Health Care System (like health care facilities nationwide) is urging baby boomers to get screened for Hepatitis C, a viral infection that attacks the liver but often has no symptoms. The great news is that treatment options have expanded and improved!
For those who have Hepatitis C, treating it is easier and more successful than in years past, and now nationwide, testing is recommended for those born between 1945 and 1965 and for those who ever shared a needle to inject drugs—even if only once.
"Very few people are symptomatic when they first contract Hepatitis C, so they might have been exposed when they were younger via a blood transfusion or by sharing a needle, but they don't know for years they have it until problems start. People could have Hepatitis C for decades and not know it," says Dr. Eleanor Wilson, director of the Hepatitis C Clinic at the VA Maryland Health Care System and infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Despite the lack of symptoms, Hepatitis C slowly causes scarring of the liver. As scarring accumulates, it leads to cirrhosis—or a complete scarring of the liver, which, in turn, can lead to liver cancer. "Hepatitis C causes more cirrhosis than alcoholism," Wilson said.
Yolanda Flores, the Hepatitis C coordinator at the VA Maryland Health Care System says stigma plays a large role inhibiting people from getting screened. "People know that Hep C is spread through drugs and sex, but not that it is spread through so many other ways. Ears pierced with a non-sterilized device is a way it can be spread," she said. "Just being a baby boomer is a risk factor," she added, noting that nearly 6,000 Veterans in the VA Maryland's catchment area are baby boomers. "Baby boomers do need to be screened, regardless of risk factors," she said.
"Baby boomers have higher prevalence of Hepatitis C for a lot of reasons. It can be spread through unscreened blood transfusions, sex, through drug use, the straws used to snort drugs, via needle sticks, and from sharing clippers and razors," Wilson added, noting that Hepatitis C cannot be spread from touching, kissing, taking care of people with it, or from toilet seats. "We advise our patients not to share razors and clippers. They can put others at risk before they're cured, and be at risk for reinfection after they're cured."
In the recent past, there was a lack of approved treatments; consequently, it was given only to those in dire, terminal need or who struggled with other diseases. Now things have changed. Recent improvements in the treatment for Hepatitis C have changed the way the condition is treated. New drugs have little or mild side effects and are effective. The goal is to treat everyone with Hepatitis C. Initially, medications used to treat Hepatitis C carried a high price tag. "In 2013, it cost $1,000 per pill for 12 weeks on average, and the first combo pill carried a $1, 250 cost," Wilson said, adding that the VA negotiated lower prices, making it possible to treat everyone, normal pharmacy copays apply.
"Now, hepatitis C can be treated and cured," Wilson said.
Veterans who are baby boomers are urged to get screened for Hepatitis C and to follow through on the treatment by calling 410-605-7194 option 3. "They can leave a message and we will call them back," Wilson said.