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To screen or not to screen for hepatitis C

Hep CIn the past few years, newer, more effective treatments have been introduced for hepatitis C - a disease that can lead to chronic liver problems and in the worst cases, liver cancer. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended screening for the disease in anyone born between 1945-1965, since about three-quarters of cases occur in this age group, the Baby Boomers. Last year, the World Health Organization also called for more screening for the disease.

But in a recent analysis piece in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), several scientists, including Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, lay out the case that universal screening in this age group may not be warranted. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle today quotes Ioannidis:

“The question is whether these aggressive screening policies are justified and whether they would result in more benefit than harm,” said Dr. John Ioannidis...“We know very little about the potential harms of these drugs, especially in the long-term. And we don’t know how they will translate into long-term benefits.”

Ioannidis and his colleagues suggest that instead of rolling out widespread screening programs, researchers, as soon as possible, start a randomized trial to test the usefulness of screening and who may benefit from it.

On top of the medical uncertainties of the new treatments, they’re expensive, costing about $84,000 for the 12-week treatment. But they’ve been shown to cure patients of their hepatitis C infections at the end of that 12 week stint. Not all people who contract the disease will develop chronic infections, but a majority - two-thirds -will. Twenty percent of those cases will go on to develop severe liver disease.

Advocates of universal screening say that the new screening strategy could identify many people who don’t know they’re sick - symptoms from hepatitis C chronic infections can take years to manifest. But Ioannidis and his colleagues note that many people will get unnecessary treatment and that the long-term uncertainties of the treatment should be taken into consideration.

Previously: Despite steep price tag, use of hepatitis C drug among prisoners could save money overallA primer on hepatitis CFor patients with advanced hepatitis C, benefits of new drugs outweigh costsDrugs offer new hope for hepatitis C and Program examines hepatitis C, the "silent epidemic"
Photo of hepatitis C virus by AJ Cann

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