Hepatitis Awareness Month is nearly half over and I feel like I have barely begun. There is a desperate need for more awareness, particularly about hepatitis C. This week I heard from a couple of newly diagnosed patients. My heart ached for them, because unlike me, they found out they had hepatitis C after the disease had already progressed to cirrhosis. It may not be too late for them, but it may be. With new hepatitis C medications, they may clear the virus, but likely they will still have to deal with cirrhosis and the potential for liver cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 75% of those with hepatitis C do not know that they are infected. Even the more conservative estimate of 50% means that around 1.35 million Americans carry a virus that is replicating a trillion times a day in millions of livers. It also means that these 1.35 million Americans have the potential to infect others. Fortunately, hepatitis C is not easily transmitted, but nonetheless, it is an infectious virus. It is also curable.
The capacity to cure hepatitis C is the real miracle. Hepatitis C cure rates are around 90%, and they are going to get better. When I was infected with hepatitis C 25 years ago, it was inconceivable that we would be able to eradicate this virus with a pill with minimal side effects, taken daily for two to three months. However, that is exactly what is ahead as early as this October.
However, curing hepatitis C hinges on identifying those who have it, and linking them to care. This is why we have Hepatitis Awareness Month. It is an opportunity to make difference. In fact, it is more than an opportunity—it is our responsibility if we are to save lives.