WASHINGTON (Reuters): The United States is facing a ”silent epidemic” of hepatitis C, US Surgeon General David Satcher said on Thursday as he and lawmakers launched an awareness campaign about the liver-destroying disease.
Satcher said most of the estimated 4 million Americans infected with the hepatitis C virus probably are not aware they have it, and he urged those at risk to go to their doctors for tests and treatment if needed.
“Our country is facing a silent epidemic in the form of hepatitis C” Satcher wrote in a letter addressed to US citizens. The letter was written for members of Congress to distribute to their constituents.
The hepatitis C virus is the most common cause of chronic liver disease, which can lead to liver cirrhosis, cancer or failure.
People can carry the virus for two to three decades without experiencing symptoms, and some people who carry the virus may never develop symptoms at all.
Those at risk include people who have used injectable illegal drugs or who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to July 1992, or a blood clotting product before 1987. Others include people who have been on long-term kidney dialysis, or who have been pricked with a needle carrying infected blood or whose mother had hepatitis C.
In rare cases, hepatitis C can be passed through sexual contact with an infected person.
While there is no cure, hepatitis C can be treated with medications if caught early.
“Every day of delay could mean increased harm to infected individuals whose livers may be gradually destroyed by chronic liver disease” said US Representative Tom Bliley, a Virginia Republican who heads the House Commerce Committee.
A screening test for the hepatitis C virus became available in 1992. US health officials are trying to notify people who may have been exposed to virus through transfusions prior to that time. Now, the US blood supply is thought to be virtually free of the virus.