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Amid 'silent epidemic,' IDHW encourages all adults to get tested for hepatitis C

A white bottle of medication labeled: Harvoni sits next to a blister pack box that is peach and turquoise
Lloyd Fox
Harvoni is one of the new medications for hepatitis C that can cure almost all infections.

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control found less than a third of insured patients with hepatitis C received timely treatment. Among those on Medicaid, that number dropped to less than 25%.

Last June, Idaho stopped requiring prior authorization for Medicaid recipients to go through treatment in an effort to address the issue. A cure for the virus, which is transmitted through blood contact, was developed over the last decade, significantly improving patients' outcomes. Without insurance, the treatment is often too costly for patients.

DaNae Schoenborn, a specialist for the Viral Hepatitis Prevention Program with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said testing is another obstacle to tackling the virus.

"It is considered that silent epidemic," she said. "People don't know that they're even infected. They don't know until they get tested."

Health officials want to make sure people are getting tested, Schoenborn explained.

"This doesn't mean if you're a person who may be injecting drugs, this is all people, all adults, 18 years and older, plus every pregnant person during every pregnancy."

Schoenborn added this is the second year Idaho has dedicated funding to surveilling hepatitis C across the state.

The virus is 10 times more transmissible than HIV. Patients may not know they are infected and without treatment, can continue to transmit it to others. Hepatitis C is not a sexually transmitted disease. It can lead to liver failure and cancer if left untreated. Symptoms can include fever, vomiting and yellowing of the skin and eyes.

Drug users who share needles are at high risk, Schoenbern explained, which makes access to treatment complicated.

"If people are not in a stabilized environment, maybe they are experiencing homelessness, maybe they don't know where they're going to sleep tonight or where they're going to get their next meal," she explained. "Being treated for hepatitis C is very low on their priority compared to their other needs."

There is no vaccine for the disease but with treatment, more than 95% of patients are cured.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.