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Providers Worry Hepatitis C Infections May Worsen Amid Pandemic

Despite effective therapies, hepatitis C infections are on the rise in the United States. May is Hepatitis C Awareness Month. (Adobe Stock)
Despite effective therapies, hepatitis C infections are on the rise in the United States. May is Hepatitis C Awareness Month. (Adobe Stock)
May 18, 2020

LOUISA, Ky. -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues to strain the state's health care system, providers are concerned about another viral infectious disease spreading under the radar.

The hepatitis C virus damages the liver and can lead to liver cancer and death. It's transmitted through the blood, which is why it's prevalent among people who are intravenous drug users. Kentucky currently leads the nation in the number of hepatitis C infections, and ranks number two in the country for the number of infants exposed to the virus at birth.

Lynn Hill is a nurse practitioner in Lawerence County. She said COVID-19 is scaring patients away from getting treatment, so her hospital has adapted.

"So we adjusted things, we did telehealth; we were able to have the medication shipped to the patient's home," Hill said. "At our hospital, you can have bloodwork done from your car, so the patient doesn't have to go in and be worried about exposure."

Hill added that medications treating hepatitis C are effective and in most cases can rid the body of the virus within a few months. According to the latest data, it's estimated there are at least 42,000 Kentuckians living with hepatitis C.

Director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable Lauren Canary said it's a misconception that hepatitis C is only transmitted among people who use drugs. She pointed out that prior to the 1990s, the virus was spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

"Baby boomers who were born between 1945 and 1965 have a particularly high prevalence of hepatitis C, and many of them don't actually have any risk factors," Canary said. "So the CDC actually recommends now that every adult over the age of 18 be screened for hepatitis C."

She worries infections will spike if prevention and treatment get left behind.

"If we stop our testing, our vaccination strategies, our treatment strategies, we're going to have continuous spread in the community," she said.

Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infectious disease in the U.S., affecting more than 3.5 million people.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY