The rates of acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection have taken a turn for the worse—that is, upward. And American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) have been particularly hard hit: In just 1 year, acute HCV infection rates jumped more than 86% among AI/ANs, according to surveillance data from the CDC.
It is common for hepatitis rates to vary, with steady trends punctuated by outbreak-related spikes. But the CDC says between 2010 and 2013, reported cases of HCV increased significantly by 151%. That increase is thought to reflect both “true increases in incidence and improved case ascertainment,” CDC says.
Hepatitis B virus and HCV symptoms can be unapparent and slow to develop, which is why hepatitis has been called a silent epidemic and why many people are not diagnosed. But people with HCV risk death if they abuse alcohol: Undiagnosed, the virus can be a deadly threat to ANs, who have a high prevalence of alcohol abuse.
No vaccine is available for HCV. And, in an article for Native Health News Alliance, Hannabah Blue, a project manager at North Dakota State University’s American Indian Public Health Resource Center, says the price of treatment is too high for many Native people.
Spreading the word about financial assistance programs could help, as could building awareness about the virus. The CDC and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also recommend some general prevention strategies, such as one-time screening for adults born between 1945 and 1965 (about 75% of all people with HCV infection are in that age group). The FDA also has approved point-of-care tests for HCV infection, making it easier for patients to receive test results and referrals during the same health care visit.
Continuously updated evidence-based guidance for providers caring for HCV-infected patients is available at http://www.hcvguidelines.org.