Children and infants should be tested for hepatitis C if they may have been exposed at or around birth, according to new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A nucleic acid test can be given between 2 months and 6 months of age to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment. The CDC has also recommended screening women for hepatitis C during each pregnancy.
Hepatitis C, Pregnant Women & Newborns
The push for early testing reflects rising rates of hepatitis C in the United States. The incidence has risen significantly over the past several years, coinciding with the increased use of intravenous drugs accompanying the opioid epidemic.
Women of childbearing age have been disproportionately impacted. Perinatal transmission from mother to child is the most common way for children to be infected with hepatitis C. Around 8% of babies born to hepatitis C-positive women contract the infection themselves.
Because hepatitis C may not be easily identifiable, however, pregnant mothers may not know they are at risk. But parents are very likely to bring their babies to well-child visits in the first six months of life, giving health care providers an opportunity to test for the virus.
The Benefits of Early Testing
Early testing is predicted to both save lives and reduce health care costs.
Early diagnosis in young children can enhance their quality of life and generate fewer long-term health system costs. Unrecognized or incorrectly diagnosed hepatitis C, on the other hand, can damage children’s health and increase the risks and costs of later treatment.
Providers can now familiarize themselves with the CDC’s new recommendation for universal screening of pregnant women and early testing of exposed infants. The nucleic acid test can be administered to infants to ensure they have access to early evaluation and medication, now approved for children as young as 3 years old.
Testing both pregnant mothers and infants during the first six months of life provides the best chance of identifying and adequately treating the disease in its most vulnerable victims.