A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only half of Americans identified as having had Hepatitis C ever follow-up with additional screening and treatment. But that’s only part of the problem, according to Bruce Burkett of the Missouri Hepatitis C Alliance. Nearly three in four people who have the disease don’t even know it.
“I got infected back in 1973 while I was in the army,” says Burkett.
More than 15 years passed before Burkett learned he actually had Hepatitis C and then pursued treatment. Symptoms can take decades to show up. The virus affects the liver, is a leading cause of transplants and a primary risk factor for liver cancer.
Burkett now tours the state, testing thousands of people each year for Hepatitis C. He worries that far too many Missourians who are infected have no idea.
“Most of the people we test, 98 percent don’t have a clue that they have it. Many of them don’t even know how it’s spread,” says Burkett.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, such as from sharing a dirty needle or undergoing a blood transfusion before blood was screened for such viruses.
Missouri had nearly 5,000 reported cases of Hepatitis C last year. It’s most common among baby boomers. The CDC now recommends everyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested.
Burkett’s also concerned about another group: young adults. He has seen more test positive lately and attributes that to a rise in heroin use.
Health officials in Kansas City say they’re also starting to see more young people infected with hepatitis C, but think the primary cause is not from injection drug use, but rather, from risky sexual behavior and sharing homemade tattoo needles.
The department is offering free hepatitis C screenings on a walk-in basis Monday afternoon.
*Update: The health department had to close early Monday and has rescheduled the free screenings for Thursday afternoon.
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