Hepatitis C testing is critical to stopping a silent epidemic 

More than 500,000 Californians are infected with hepatitis C, yet the vast majority of those infected don't realize it.

Even though hepatitis C is the leading cause of catastrophic liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer, it's estimated that up to 75 percent of infected Americans do not even know they have the disease. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that deaths due to this blood-borne virus will double or even triple in the next 20 years.

The significant gap between the disease's progression and diagnosis is largely due to the fact that people can live for years -- even decades -- without feeling sick, while testing for the virus is not nearly as common as it should be.

Recognizing this public-health crisis, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would promote awareness by requiring primary care physicians to offer a hepatitis C test to patients born between 1945 and 1965. These baby boomers are five times more likely to be infected.

I lived with the virus for more than 25 years, so I know from my own experience that hepatitis C screening can be a lifesaver.

My doctor never suggested that I get tested for hepatitis C, despite the fact that I had received a blood transfusion and had abnormally high liver function enzymes. I am also a baby boomer -- sharing common risk factors with my age group, which makes up approximately 75 percent of hepatitis C-positive adults in the U.S.

Fortunately, I advocated for the test, and I was cured.

If I had not asked for the test, I have no doubt that my cirrhosis would have progressed, making treatment more difficult or even leading to liver failure, liver cancer or the transplant list.

The CDC estimates that one-time testing of baby boomers alone would prevent more than 120,000 deaths and identify 800,000 undiagnosed cases nationwide. And thanks to action on the part of the CDC and U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, hepatitis C testing for adults born between 1945 and 1965 is universally covered by health insurance plans.

Still, despite the widespread nature of this infectious disease, testing for hepatitis continues to carry a negative stigma -- one that needs to be erased. I have heard countless stories of people asking their doctors for hepatitis C screening, only to be shamed and questioned as to what they may have done to warrant the test.

Testing is critical to success in the fight against hepatitis C. It's the only way to connect people with life-saving treatment and counseling to prevent new infections. Infected people who do not know their hepatitis C status can unknowingly infect others while the disease progresses to cause catastrophic liver damage.

Hepatitis C is a silent epidemic that requires action and awareness. We can put a stop to this devastating disease, but only if those infected know their hepatitis C status.

Robin Roth is co-chairwoman of the San Francisco Hepatitis C Task Force and a health education professor at City College of San Francisco. She is also the author of "Self-Care for Hepatitis C" -- guided meditations downloadable for free at www.hepCmeditations.org.

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Robin Roth

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