(BPT) – U.S. veterans are three times more likely than the general population to have chronic hepatitis C, a serious liver disease caused by a virus that affects about 3.5 million Americans. This increased risk, which is greatest for baby boomer veterans (born between 1945 and 1965), may be due in part to exposure to infected blood during combat. However, unlike some viral diseases, treatment of chronic hepatitis C can lead to cure of the infection. Cure means the virus is no longer detected in the blood when measured at least three months after treatment is completed.
Chronic hepatitis C has been called a “silent” disease because it slowly damages the liver, often without showing any symptoms, which makes it difficult to diagnose until after problems with the liver have already developed. About half of Americans with chronic hepatitis C, including many of our nation’s veterans, are unaware they are infected.
“It is important for veterans to understand their risk for chronic hepatitis C, because this infection can have serious consequences,” said Dr. Eric Lawitz, hepatologist at the Texas Liver Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and a U.S. veteran. “Chronic hepatitis C infection can eventually lead to serious liver damage, liver failure or liver cancer.”
People living with chronic hepatitis C may feel that there is a stigma around the disease, due to others’ misconception about how it is spread. But, there are many ways someone could come in contact with the virus. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, have received medical care with non-sterile intsruments, have body piercings or tattoos or are a current or past injection drug user, you are at risk. Anyone with one of these risk factors should ask a doctor to be tested.
Recent medical advancements have improved the chances of curing chronic hepatitis C infection. However, early diagnosis and medical care are needed to help protect patients from the consequences of living with the disease for many years. Screening for hepatitis C infection can be done with a simple blood test.
“We have made great strides in screening and treating patients with chronic hepatitis C,” said Dr. Lawitz. “However, every patient is unique so it is important to work with your healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has recently taken significant steps in the fight against chronic hepatitis C. Last year, the VA expanded access to treatment for all appropriate veterans with chronic hepatitis C who are eligible for VA healthcare.
If you are a veteran, schedule an appointment to talk to your doctor about screening today. If you have been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C infection, follow up with your doctor about treatment options.