Of course it pales in comparison to the holidays that bookend it, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, but this past weekend held the first ever National Hepatitis Testing Day. How did you celebrate? Did you roll up your sleeve for a needle poke and a one-time hepatitis C test? If you are a baby boomer, specifically if you were born between 1945 through 1965, that is exactly what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will soon recommend that you do.
I often work on projects related to hepatitis in my medical writing day job and have seen this recommendation coming for awhile. Several years ago the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent medical think tank, issued a report about the lack of awareness among the public and healthcare professionals concerning hepatitis C, as well as other types of hepatitis, leaving many infected individuals not knowing they are infected and, consequently, untreated. The problem with leaving hepatitis C untreated is that chronic infection can lead to liver disease, liver cancer, and/or death in a significant number of individuals. In response to the IOM’s report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report of their own, mandating, among other things, that the CDC expand and strengthen their hepatitis C screening recommendations.
Epidemiologists have long been studying the large bubble of infection in baby boomers. The CDC says 1 in 30 boomers are infected and most have no idea, despite the fact that recommendations for screening based on risk factors have been in place since 1998. Reasons for the bubble are complex, but it boils down to the fact that hepatitis C was in the blood supply for a long time before researchers figured out a) what it was, and b) a way to test for it. It wasn’t until 1992, yes recent history, that donated blood was widely tested. And of course, there were, and are, other ways to have contact with infected blood other than official transfusions.
CDC’s recommendation isn’t final yet. A public comment period is open from May 22 to June 8, 2012, after which the final guidelines will be written and published. You can read the CDC’s fact sheet here.
(photo: hepatitis C, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)