Other Voices

Veterans can reduce impact of hepatitis C

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 75 percent of HCV-infected people do not know it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 75 percent of HCV-infected people do not know it. AP

The holiday season gives all of us a chance to do more than just thank and remember those who put on America’s uniform to defend our freedoms. It gives us a chance to actually do something, especially if someone close to us is a veteran.

One of the most important things we can do is make sure the veterans we love get and stay healthy, especially as they grow older. Good preventive care and prompt action when illness or disease occurs are key steps.

The American Liver Foundation believes part of that good care for veterans is making sure they get examined for potential liver diseases, especially the chronic hepatitis C virus, or HCV.

This virus, which an estimated 300,000 Texans have, is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths around the globe. It is also a leading cause of advanced liver disease, liver cancer, liver failure and liver transplants, and can contribute to lymphoma, diabetes, as well as thyroid and kidney diseases.

Overall, HCV kills 15,000 people a year in the U.S., a total higher than that for HIV/AIDS. Given recent advancements in care, it is time for this tragedy to end.

HCV is often referred to as a “silent disease” because the virus can lurk without noticeable symptoms for years or even decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 75 percent of infected people do not know it.

Some people with HCV may experience symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite or abdominal pain, however by the time they experience symptoms the disease has most likely advanced.

Veterans are at special risk. It is estimated that 8-10 percent of all veterans have HCV, and studies show that veterans have been infected at rates five times higher than that of the general population.

And in a state with 1.6 million veterans, it’s important for Texans to take notice. This could mean that nearly 160,000 of the veterans living in Texas are infected with HCV.

Though we may be discouraged by the statistics about the prevalence of HCV, we can also celebrate what new treatments are doing for those suffering from the disease. Newly FDA-approved therapies have 90 percent cure rates, with far fewer side effects than previous treatments.

This is nothing short of life-changing for those who have HCV. And for the overall healthcare system, including the Veterans Administration that provides health care for our veterans, these treatments mean a future with far fewer dramatic, risky and expensive interventions like liver transplants.

But that success story can only be written if people most at risk for HCV get tested. The CDC recommends that those born between 1945 and 1965 talk to their doctor about testing for HCV.

Vietnam-era veterans — those who served between 1965 and 1974 — are part of a specific group of people the Veterans Administration identifies as needing special screening.

Congress and the Obama Administration gave the VA an assist recently with additional money to help the agency treat those with HCV. But those of us with friends and loved ones who are veterans should do our part, too, by encouraging them to get tested for HCV and to encourage those who have the disease to seek the best care.

Tom Nealon is CEO of the American Liver Foundation.