It’s shocking enough that more than 3 million people in the United States are infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), but what really blows me away is that most of these people have no idea about their infection status. In fact, just considering adults ages 40-64, there’s an estimated 1.6 million in the U.S. who have HCV but don’t know it. Screening for HCV has never been easier than it is today, since there is now a test that gives results in just 20 minutes.
When hepatitis C was first identified in 1987, tests were not even available to diagnose this disease. Instead, it was diagnosed by symptoms combined with ruling out other forms of hepatitis. In the early 1990s, when BioPlus began our work with hepatitis patients, a test finally became commercially available; this was the hepatitis C antibody test (anti-HCV). While this test was a godsend, I can still recall how the weeks of waiting would be for patients anxious to find out if they had hepatitis C.
Over the years, more and better tests have entered the marketplace. Today, wait time for HCV screening has collapsed down to just 20 minutes, thanks to the FDA’s approval last year of a rapid HCV test. I hope that this rapid test translates into more people getting screened for HCV. The FDA appears to agree with my hope, since they just issued a waiver that allows this test to be used at physician’s offices, health departments, and other non-laboratory sites. I’ve already heard about numerous community-based health fairs across the country getting set to use this test in 2012.
More widespread screening for HCV will greatly increase diagnosis rates of HCV and thereby prevent more serious liver disease from untreated HCV infections. Consider again those 1.6 million Baby Boomers who don’t know they have this disease; if they all got screened with this quick test (and started treatment), there could be 48,000 fewer HCV-related deaths. If confidentiality is more important to someone than speedy results, another way to get screened for HCV is to donate blood (since blood will be screened and the person informed if it tests positive for hepatitis C).
Screening is not solely for individuals with conventional high risk factors (such as IV drug use, blood transfusion before 1992, or unprotected sex with a known HCV-infected person). HCV testing is also appropriate for anyone with a needle stick from a potentially unsterile needle, anyone with a questionable sexual encounter, anyone who has done nasal drugs (even if it was only one time many years ago), or anyone who has lived with someone who has hepatitis C.
Along with the improvements in testing, the treatment protocols for HCV have made great strides this past year alone. In the early days of BioPlus, the standard treatment for hepatitis C infection was effective in only 15 percent of cases. Even a few years ago, we could only offer success for about half of HCV cases. Today, due to recent advances and new medications, we can clear the virus in more than 70 percent of our patients. As HCV research continues in laboratories around the world, I hope to see the percentage of patients who clear the hepatitis C virus rise even more.
Stephen C Vogt, PharmD
President and CEO
Bridget M. Kuehn. Rapid Hepatitis C Test. JAMA 2011;306(24):2661.