Just 25 years ago, scientists identified the previously unknown virus
that has since killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. It now
threatens the health of millions more.
The discovery of the
hepatitis C virus led to effective ways of reducing transmission and,
more recently, to highly effective, life-saving treatments. But to
truly eliminate hepatitis C in the U.S., these treatments must be used
by everyone who needs them. Even as the nation grapples with how to
ensure access to these treatments, another major challenge remains —
about half of the nearly three million Americans living with the virus have no idea they are infected.
C infection initially has few noticeable symptoms. For years, even
decades, it can slowly and silently damage the liver. Chronic hepatitis
C can progress undetected to cirrhosis, liver cancer and other
life-threatening conditions. Before widespread screening of the blood
supply began in 1992, hepatitis C was the disease most frequently spread
through blood transfusions — yet many people infected this way are
still unaware they are even at risk. In addition, others may have
become infected from experimentation with drug use, even if only once
decades ago. And the virus continues to spread, with an approximately 50 percent increase in new cases in just two years; most new infections now occur among injection drug users.