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Silent Epidemic
31 JULY 2017

Tom Nealon, ALF CEO & Board Chair on World Hepatitis Day: Eradicating a Silent Epidemic is Within Our Reach

If I told you that thousands of Americans are dying every year from a disease that is 10 times more infectious than HIV – and more deadly too – yet preventable and curable, the chances that you would know I’m referring to Hepatitis C are slim, right? Unfortunately, you are not alone.

In recent years the number of Hepatitis C cases and deaths have been on the rise. In fact, last year the combined number deaths due to Hepatitis C surpassed those from 60 other infectious diseases, including HIV and tuberculous. It is no exaggeration to say this is truly a public health epidemic and one that is flying under the radar of many Americans who are at the highest risk.

This includes people like me, a baby boomer, born between 1945 and 1965. Of the 3.5 million Americans who have Hepatitis C, the overwhelming majority are baby boomers. Unfortunately that number may be much higher as many people do not know that they may be high risk or even walking around with an illness at all for decades. As the Hepatitis C virus is primarily spread through blood, many baby boomers may have contracted it through a simple blood transfusion or organ transplant before the screening standards were put in place in the early 1990s, through a shared needle or some other contact with blood product. There is certainly some sigma and fear at play about Hepatitis C and how some people contract it that may dissuade people from getting tested, but the risks are too high to let this frighten us into complacency.

What is so insidious with a virus like Hepatitis C is that most people with acute Hepatitis C never have any symptoms for many years and thus do not seek treatment until very late. However, the virus can become chronic and cause much bigger health problems later in life, such as inflammation and scarring of your liver, known as cirrhosis and possibly liver cancer requiring an intensive treatment regimen.

The bottom line is that most people who have Hepatitis C are not getting tested for it. So what can you do if you think you or your loved one may be at risk? The answer is simple: Get tested. Get Treated. Get Cured. Yes, you read that right. Hepatitis C can be cured. With more and more advanced treatments entering the marketplace, the possibility of a cure is well within reach for most patients who get this scary diagnosis.

Just five years ago, it was harder to see an upside of finding out if you had Hepatitis C, but today we are in a radically different place. In less than a decade we have gone from only a few treatment options for Hepatitis C to now having 17 FDA approved medications. The recent medical advances in treating Hepatitis C are incredible, leading to shorter length of treatments that are more effective with fewer side effects for patients. Most importantly, these treatments can completely cure patients of the virus and potentially eradicate this disease entirely. While the costs of treatment are high, they continue to drop as access and medication options are expanding.

The next time you visit your doctor, ask them to conduct a simple blood test for Hepatitis C. Encourage your loved ones, friends and family to get tested. Almost all insurance providers will pay for a one time test for Hepatitis C. It is so rare to have a chance to virtually eradicate a disease and we must not let it slip through our grasp.

As a baby boomer, I saw firsthand the devastating effects the polio epidemic had on my own friends and family. However, it was such a triumphant moment for our generation when polio was completely eliminated from the United States in 1979. Unfortunately, I watched this again decades later with the HIV epidemic with incredible efforts for the scientific and healthcare communities to address the global impact of the disease. While many treatment advances and discoveries have been made to treat HIV/AIDS, a cure for this virus remains elusive. The fact that we have the chance to virtually eradicate Hepatitis C must warrant greater attention from the patient and medical communities.

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