Screening for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in individuals at increased risk is currently recommended by most, but not all, health authorities. This study identifies outcomes of individuals diagnosed through a screening program targeting high-risk patients.
Veterans presenting for care in VA facilities are assessed for HCV risk factors by a questionnaire. Those with a risk factor are offered anti-HCV testing. Between October 1998 and May 2004, 25,701 patients were assessed and 8,471 patients had a risk factor for HCV. Patients diagnosed through the screening program were assessed per study protocol.
The prevalence of a positive HCV antibody in veterans who identified a risk factor was 7.3% (95% CI 6.6-8.0%). Among those diagnosed through the screening program (N = 260), 47% had chronic hepatitis C. Among patients with chronic HCV, 18% had evidence of advanced liver disease (stage III/IV on biopsy or clinical cirrhosis) while 34% had persistently normal alanine aminotransferase (ALT). Two-thirds of individuals who underwent liver biopsy had minimal or no fibrosis. About half (47%) of the screen-detected patients with chronic HCV were treatment candidates. Forty-four percent were not immediate candidates secondary to medical or psychiatric comorbidities or active substance abuse. Twenty-two patients (8%) had died after a median follow-up of 911 days. Two were liver-related deaths.
Screening for hepatitis C in persons at high risk can lead to early identification of individuals at risk for progressive liver disease who may benefit from antiviral therapy and counseling to reduce HCV-related liver injury.