Pennsylvania must do more to fight the epidemic of hepatitis C

The Legislature should approve a bill that provides screening for all

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Pennsylvania lawmakers have an opportunity when they come back into session to take decisive action against a disease that has become known as the “silent killer” — a disease that poses a grave threat to Pennsylvania’s baby boomer population.

Hepatitis C, an infectious, blood-borne disease, is the leading cause of catastrophic liver damage, including cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer, in the United States. Hepatitis C is now responsible for more than 15,000 deaths every year, which makes the virus more fatal than HIV (approximately 12,700 deaths every year), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

More than 3.2 million Americans are infected with the hepatitis C virus, yet it is estimated that up to 75 percent of those infected do not even know it.

Leading health authorities, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, have all called for increased attention to this silent epidemic, but more concrete action to promote hepatitis C testing is critical.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed House Bill 2003 — legislation that would go a long way toward raising awareness of this terrible disease among at-risk Pennsylvania populations.

This commonsense legislation, which is pending in the state Senate, would promote hepatitis C screening for baby boomers — an age group which is five times more likely to be infected with the virus — by requiring that individuals born between 1945 and 1965 be offered hepatitis C screening.

Hepatitis C often goes undetected because symptoms may not present themselves for years or even decades, and because testing for the disease is not as common as it should be. When patients eventually do feel sick, the virus has often already taken its toll, causing cirrhosis or even cancer.

Patients living with hepatitis C can unknowingly spread the virus to others before they are diagnosed. And because so many Americans living with the disease nationwide don’t know that they’re infected, the CDC predicts that deaths due to the virus will double or even triple in the next two decades.

Despite the spread of the virus and its lack of symptoms, hepatitis C testing is not widely offered — even to baby boomers and other patients who are most at risk. All Pennsylvanians who are unaware of their hepatitis C status should get tested.

Early detection of infection can make the difference between life and death. In fact, the CDC estimates that one-time testing of today’s baby boomers alone would prevent more than 120,000 deaths, while also identifying 800,000 undiagnosed cases nationwide. Most private and public insurance plans, including Medicare, cover hepatitis C screening for baby boomers.

The Community Liver Alliance is dedicated to prevention, education and research. We are also dedicated to providing information to policy makers about liver health and liver disease. Any serious discussion of preventing liver disease must necessarily include a strategy to identify individuals infected with hepatitis C.

H.B. 2003 is a significant step toward addressing the hepatitis C epidemic in Pennsylvania. The Senate should act as soon as it reconvenes in Harrisburg to pass this critical life-saving legislation and send it to the governor’s desk.

By passing this legislation, lawmakers can make a difference in the fight against hepatitis C. Promoting hepatitis C screening for baby boomers is a commonsense solution that will save and improve the lives of countless Pennsylvanians.

Suzanna Masartis is executive director of the Community Liver Alliance, a nonprofit organization serving Western Pennsylvania.

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