March 2 (UPI) -- A prominent panel of healthcare experts recommends hepatitis C screening for all adults in the United States, in an article published Monday by JAMA Network Open.
Noting the increases in prevalence of the infection across the country -- owing in large part to the growth in injection drug use -- members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, or USPSTF, an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in preventive medicine, have advised physicians to screen all Americans between 18 and 79 years of age for the disease, which primarily affects the liver.
The group also suggests testing adolescents under 18 years of age and seniors older than 79 years of age based on their risk for the disease, including if they have a history of injection drug use.
The new recommendations are an update of the group's earlier guidance, which was published in 2013 and recommended screening for those at high risk and those born between 1945 and 1965.
"Hepatitis C is a major public health problem in the United States," Dr. Douglas K. Owens, USPSTF chair and a general internist and investigator at the Center for Innovation to Implementation at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in California, told UPI. "We feel like we can make a major difference if clinicians screen people and we can get them into treatment."
According to the USPSTF report, hepatitis C virus, or HCV, is the most common chronic blood-borne disease in the U.S. and a leading cause of complications from chronic liver disease across the country. An estimated 4.1 million adults nationwide have or have had HCV, the authors report and, between 2000 and 2017, cases of acute infection increased approximately 3.8-fold.
The risk for HCV is highest among those with a history of injection drug use. Indeed, the most rapid increase in acute HCV infections has been in young adults between 20 to 39 years of age who inject drugs, with increases in both sexes but more pronounced in men.
The USPSTF said that screening for HCV is now fairly straightforward, thanks to antibody testing and polymerase chain reaction testing for HCV RNA, which are both accurate and non-invasive. Most adults need to be screened only once, although those at higher risk -- including those who use injection drugs -- should be screened periodically, the group said.
Thanks to the advent of new antivirals, HCV is treatable, in most cases. However, success is typically greater in those who are diagnosed earlier before living complications develop -- which is another reason for more widespread screening.
"It's important for people to know that treatments for hepatitis C are much, much better than they used to be," Owens said.