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Hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease and is particularly prevalent in our country’s veterans — yet it is curable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that hepatitis C has the highest mortality rate of any infectious disease in the country. And importantly, U.S. veterans are three times more likely to have chronic hepatitis C than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Moreover, because people living with chronic hepatitis C infection often experience no symptoms, many veterans with the disease remain undiagnosed. The CDC encourages screening both to diagnose existing infections while they’re still treatable and to help prevent the spread of new hepatitis C infections.

Making screening a top priority
Healthcare providers should be aware of veterans’ higher risk for chronic hepatitis C infection, due in part to potential blood exposure during their military service, and advise them accordingly. The risk is greatest for baby boomer veterans — those born between 1945 and 1965. People with chronic hepatitis C infection among this cohort were likely infected during the Vietnam War era.

Screening is particularly important for veterans who also fall into other at-risk categories, including those who

  • Received blood transfusions or blood products before 1992
  • Currently use injection drugs or have in the past
  • Are infected with HIV
  • Have tattoos or body piercings

Veterans are far from the only ones affected. The risk of having contracted the hepatitis C virus is so pervasive among all baby boomers that the CDC and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend one-time testing for everyone born between 1945 and 1965.

Small steps can make a big difference
The CDC estimates that only about half of the estimated 3.5 million Americans with hepatitis C are aware of their infection. A healthcare provider can perform a simple blood test for the condition that delivers results in as little as 20 minutes. Early diagnosis and treatment may help reduce the risk of serious liver damage, liver failure or liver cancer.

Regardless of the severity of disease, treatment for chronic hepatitis C infection is available, and the infection can be cured. This means that three months after treatment, the virus can no longer be detected in the blood. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expanded access to treatments for all chronic hepatitis C patients, not just those with severe liver disease.

“It’s critical that all veterans afflicted with chronic hepatitis C infection get the help they need, no matter what the severity,” said Eric Lawitz, MD, a U.S. veteran himself who is also clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio and vice president, scientific and research development at the Texas Liver Institute. “But the first step in that process is screening. Far too many veterans are simply falling through the cracks.”

Anyone at risk for chronic hepatitis C infection should talk to a healthcare provider about getting screened. It is especially important, however, that U.S. veterans be aware of their increased risk — and take appropriate action.