ONE OF THE GREATEST THREATS FACING VETERANS AT HOME
The hepatitis C virus is a national public health threat that is even more devastating for veterans, due to the potential for blood exposure in com-bat or health care settings. Prevalence of hepatitis C among veterans who receive care through the Veterans Health Administration (VA) is more than twice the rate reported in the general population. While approximately 175,000 VA enrollees have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, the VA estimates that as many as 42,000 enrollees may be infected without knowing it.
HEPATITIS C IS A GROWING PUBLIC HEALTH THREAT TO VETERANS, LARGELY BECAUSE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THOSE INFECTED DO NOT KNOW THAT THEY HAVE THE VIRUS.
A SILENT KILLER IN THE VETERAN COMMUNITY
Not only are veterans facing growing hepatitis C infection rates, but mor-tality rates related to the virus are also on the rise among former service members. According to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 8,000 hepatitis C-positive veterans died in 2013, up from 1,986 in 2001. In addition, the number of hepatitis C-infected veterans diagnosed with liver cancer has increased ten-fold over the last decade, while the number of veterans diagnosed with cirrhosis has tripled to more than 40,000 in 2013.
Fortunately, new hepatitis C treatments are now available that can cure the virus in most people. Unlike older, interferon-based regimens, which has debilitating side effects and are only effective half of the time, innovative therapies offer cure rates exceeding 95 percent while causing minimal side effects.
COMBATING HEPATITIS C REQUIRES IMPROVED ACCESS TO TESTING & EFFECTIVE TREATMENT
Hepatitis C screening for at-risk patients is critical to improve awareness, connect patients with effective treatment, and prevent new infections. Despite the VA’s risk- based screening efforts which began in 1998, just 65 percent of veterans in VA care have been tested for this potentially deadly disease, and because most veterans do not receive care through the VA, they are even less likely to be tested.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, if baby boomer veterans (those born between 1945 and1965) underwent hepatitis C testing, an additional 51,000 veterans with hepatitis C would be identified.
With the availability of new treatments that can cure the virus in most cases, it is even more critical to ensure increased awareness, screening and linkage to affordable, effective care, especially through VA, so that we can turn the tide on this silent epidemic.
HEPATITIS C FACTS
- 3.9 million Americans are estimated to be living with hepatitis C – the leading cause of catastrophic liver damage (cirrhosis), liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplants.
- Up to 75 percent of individuals living with hepatitis C do not realize they are infected because the disease often takes years, or even decades, to cause symptoms.
- While the virus remains undetected, causing potentially life-threatening liver damage, individuals can unknowingly transmit the disease to others.
- Hepatitis C is most prevalent among baby boomers, who are five times more likely to be infected. In fact, more than 75 percent of Americans living with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965.
- Hepatitis C disproportionately affects veterans. Prevalence of hepatitis C among veterans who receive care through the Veterans Health Administration (VA) is twice the rate reported in the general population.
- Approximately 175,000 VA enrollees have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, but the VA estimates that as many as 42,000 enrollees may be infected without knowing it.
- Unless current trends are reversed, the CDC predicts that deaths due to the virus will double or even triple in the next 20 years.