Only half of all patients who have tested positive for hepatitis C have had follow-up testing to see if they are still infected, according to a new report by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Hepatitis C is a serious virus infection that can result in liver damage and even liver cancer over time. However, this damage can be prevented with early treatment, according to the CDC. Unfortunately, the new report shows that fifty percent of Americans do not get proper testing, and therefore, cannot be treated.

CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., said:

“Many people who test positive on an initial hepatitis C test are not receiving the necessary follow-up test to know if their body has cleared the virus or if they are still infected. Complete testing is critical to ensure that those who are infected receive the care and treatment for hepatitis C that they need in order to prevent liver cancer and other serious and potentially deadly health consequences.”

In order to establish whether a person has ever been infected with hepatitis C, a blood test – called an antibody test – is given to the patient.

Individuals who receive a positive antibody test result are advised to take a follow-up test, known as an RNA test, to see whether they are still infected with the virus so they can get necessary care and treatment.

Although a small number of people with positive test results are able to clear the infection on their own, the majority of patients with the virus (80%) remain infected, and therefore, can develop serious health issues.

Data were gathered and analyzed from 8 areas across the U.S. to identify hepatitis C cases. The researchers found that only 51% of the hepatitis C cases found also included a follow-up test to determine whether the virus was still present.

The other half who did not receive a follow-up test are likely not sure whether they are still infected, and consequently, cannot receive proper treatment.

The report also emphasized the serious effect hepatitis C has on baby boomers – people born between 1945 and 1965. Sixty-seven percent of all reported cases in the areas analyzed were among people born between those years.

A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine showed that the majority of hepatitis C deaths occur in baby boomers, and the new report showed that 72% of all reported deaths occur among people of this age group.

John Ward, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, said:

“Hepatitis C has few noticeable symptoms, and left undiagnosed it threatens the health of far too many Americans – especially baby boomers. Identifying those who are currently infected is important because new effective treatments can cure the infection better than ever before, as well as eliminate the risk of transmission to others.”

About 3 million people in the U.S. are infected with hepatitis C and up to 3 out of 4 do not know they have the virus.

Hepatitis C is one of the main causes of liver cancer. Over the last 10 years, deaths from hepatitis C have almost doubled – 15,000 people die each year.

“In light of increasing evidence that many patients are not receiving the follow-up test, as well as recent changes in testing technologies and the availability of new effective treatments for hepatitis C, CDC is issuing updated guidance for health care providers on hepatitis C testing,” the authors said.

The recommended process for hepatitis C testing is reinforced in these guidelines. They also emphasize how crucial it is for doctors to perform follow-up RNA tests to all patients who have a positive antibody test result.

This will make sure people infected with the virus are appropriately tested and identified, the experts explained.

All Americans born between 1945 and 1965 should receive testing for hepatitis C, according to the CDC. They also advise people at higher risk to get tested – those who were given blood transfusions or organ transplants before general screening of the blood supply started in 1992, or those who have ever injected drugs.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College showed that Sofosbuvir, a new drug, is offering impressive cure rates for Hepatitis C patients with two subtypes of the disease – genotypes 2 and 3.

Written by Sarah Glynn