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Will Hepatitis C Testing for High-Risk Infants be Expanded?

The youngest and most vulnerable victims of America’s expanding hepatitis C epidemic are newborn babies. Yet many of those exposed to the virus aren’t getting tested.  

That could soon change, though, if new federal recommendations are approved.  

New Testing Recommendations 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended: 

  • All babies born to pregnant women with confirmed or probable hepatitis C should receive testing. 
  • Infants whose test detects the virus should be referred to health care providers with expertise in pediatric hepatitis C management.  

Hepatitis C virus infections quadrupled over the past decade nationally. And the latest data show that among infants born to HCV-infected mothers, 7% develop this infection through contact with the mother’s blood during pregnancy or childbirth.  

Despite its prevalence, hepatitis C is notoriously under-diagnosed because it can attack the liver for years without the patient showing any symptoms. In fact, an estimated 40% of people currently infected don’t realize they have it.  

Standardized testing for all infants exposed perinatally would help improve diagnosis, linkage to care and treatment. There is a highly effective anti-viral therapy approved for children as young as three. The new recommendations would also help to close the disparity that sees some high-risk children evaluated and treated while others are not. 

A Health Care Paradox 

Hepatitis C has been called a paradox of U.S. health care. The medical community has never been better equipped to diagnose, treat and prevent this disease, yet infections continue to surge.  

The sharing of unsterilized needles is a major cause of hepatitis C infection, its spread fueled by the ongoing opioid epidemic. Hepatitis C causes liver inflammation, which can lead to long-term health problems including cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. It also kills more Americans than all other infectious diseases combined, COVID-19 excepted. 

The CDC’s infant recommendations come in the wake of the agency’s 2020 release of universal screening guidelines for all adults, including pregnant women. Both initiatives are part of a comprehensive national effort to eradicate hepatitis C. 

Reaching that goal is an uphill battle. The latest recommendations are an important tool for that fight, and they deserve broad support. 

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