Hidden Killer Part 1: Why Doctors are Urging People to be Tested for Hepatitis C

Posted: Jan 30, 2014 1:36 PM CST


Lynchburg, VA - Doctors are warning Americans of a silent and potentially deadly disease that could be lurking in their bodies. This hidden killer is something you don't hear about very often, even though nearly 4 million people in the U.S. have it.

Hepatitis C is not usually what comes to mind when people think about a life-threatening illness. But doctors say that's exactly why the virus is so dangerous.

"The problem with Hepatitis C is that most people who have it, don't know they have it. So there are about 4 million people in the United States with Hepatitis C, 75% of them don't know they have it," said Dr. Robert Brennan, an infectious disease specialist in Lynchburg.

Causing no symptoms and no sickness, Hepatitis C can lie dormant in a person's body for decades.

"They were exposed 30 years ago, 40 years ago in the 1960s, 1970s, never had any symptoms and don't have any symptoms now," said Brennan.

Brennan says this chronic viral infection is now killing more Americans every year than HIV.

"If we don't do something with Hepatitis C epidemic, it's predicted that about a million people in the United States will die of end-stage liver disease."

When a person is infected with Hepatitis C, the virus settles in the liver. Over time, it causes small changes, that mostly go unnoticed. But those small changes can eventually lead to big problems.

"Of the people who have Hepatitis C, most of them will not have a problem with it, but about 20% of people will develop Cirrhosis, which is end-stage, serious, liver disease, or liver cancer," said Brennan.

Doctors say baby boomers: people born between 1945 and 1965, are most at risk.

"People who used recreational drugs back in the 1960s, 1970s, when people were doing funny recreational things, got Hepatitis C because they were sharing needles, or they were using intranasal cocaine and they were exposed that way," said Brennan.

Transmitted by blood, the virus was also spread in hospitals before blood was screened for contaminants. Before 1992, blood transfusions and organ transplants could have been tainted with Hepatitis C.

With this knowledge, doctors are urging an entire generation to be tested for the disease that's wreaking such quiet havoc.

"Just one time with a contaminated piece of equipment can get you Hepatitis C, and you'll never know it until you're tested," said Brennan.

If you think you may have been exposed to Hepatitis C, or if you are a baby boomer, Dr. Brennan says it's crucial that you get tested. Just a simple blood test done by your doctor can detect the hidden killer.

On Feb. 5 on ABC 13 News at 5, we'll introduce you to someone with the virus and show you what treatments are like. We'll also tell you about some major drug developments that have doctors talking about the end of Hepatitis C as we know it.