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Veterans twice as likely to be infected with chronic hepatitis C

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Updated: 1/25/2013 10:29 am

(BPT) - An estimated 3.2 million Americans have chronic hepatitis C, a potentially serious disease that, if left untreated, can damage the liver over time and lead to cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer. Liver failure from chronic hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.

Many people infected with chronic hep C virus do not know they have it. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of those newly infected with the virus do not have symptoms. In many people with chronic hepatitis C, signs or symptoms may not appear for years.

Among those disproportionately affected by chronic hep C is the veteran community, a population twice as likely to be infected with chronic hep C as the general population. Veterans may be at increased risk because they may have additional risk factors, such as having had blood exposure during combat, or immunization by air gun injection. Of the six million veterans receiving care from the Veterans Affairs' (VA) health care system in 2010, 165,005 had evidence of chronic hep C. Most veterans with the disease being treated in the VA health care system in recent years were likely infected during the Vietnam War era any time from 1964 to 1975.

Veterans in VA care with chronic hepatitis C have higher rates of related conditions that could complicate their health. Many veterans with chronic hep C already have evidence of cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, and even more of those infected will develop cirrhosis over a span of 20 to 30 years. Since serious complications, like liver disease, usually happen years after initial infection, an increase in hep C-related deaths in veterans is expected over the next decade.

Many veterans also fall within the 'baby boomer' generation, or those born between 1945 and 1965, another group disproportionately affected by the disease. It is estimated that one in 30 baby boomers has been infected with hepatitis C and they are five times more likely to be infected than other adults. More than 2 million U.S. baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued recommendations that all U.S. baby boomers should get a one-time test for the hepatitis C virus.

In an effort to raise awareness around chronic hepatitis C, Merck has joined forces with the American Liver Foundation and Grammy(R) Award-winning musicians Gregg Allman, Natalie Cole and Jon Secada on the Tune In to Hep C campaign. Tune In to Hep C is a national public health campaign created to educate people about chronic hepatitis C and the importance of taking action. Their own personal experiences with the disease have inspired them to share their stories, educate patients about the disease and encourage others to take the next step. Allman was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C in 1999, Cole was diagnosed in 2008, and Secada lost his father to complications associated with the disease in 2011. Together, they hope to motivate others to tell their friends and family about their diagnosis and to talk to their health care provider about their options.

For more information on chronic hepatitis, please visit www.TuneInToHepC.com.

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