The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has expanded its screening guidelines for hepatitis C and now recommends that most adults get tested for the virus.
The new guidelines, published Monday in JAMA, call for clinicians to screen all adults between the ages of 18 and 79 at least once regardless of their level of risk for contracting the virus.
The expert panel cited a stark rise in the number of hepatitis C cases over the past decade caused by an increase in injection drug use from opioids. The guidelines were last updated in 2013 and called for screening high-risk individuals and individuals born between 1945 and 1965.
The U.S. saw an estimated 44,000 hepatitis C infections in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of cases has increased more than three-fold from 2010 to 2017 with the fastest rise among adults between the ages of 20 and 39.
"People with hepatitis C do not always feel sick and may not know they have it," said task force Chair Dr. Douglas K. Owens, an investigator at the Center for Innovation to Implementation at the VA Palo Alto (Calif.) Health Care System. "Screening is key to finding this infection early, when it's easier to treat and cure, helping reduce illnesses and deaths."
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne disease in the U.S. and is associated with more deaths per year than the top 60 other infectious diseases combined, including HIV. More than 18,000 people died from hepatitis C infections in 2016, which the CDC acknowledged is likely an underestimate.
The task force gave the recommendation a B rating, which means hepatitis C testing will qualify as a preventive health service under the Affordable Care Act. That will allow insured patients to get screened without co-pays.