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Kids Have Hep C Too

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Adults are not the only ones who are infected with the Hepatitis C virus. Research shows that a majority of childhood cases are missed.

After decades of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) going unnoticed by mainstream institutions, this illness is finally being recognized as a major health problem. An estimated five times more Americans are infected with Hepatitis C than HIV – the virus that causes AIDS, yet HCV is not routinely screened for. This is unfortunate, because the earlier Hepatitis C treatment commences the better chance there is of eliminating the virus. While prevention, detection and treatment of Hepatitis C are just now gaining momentum, these efforts primarily target adults. Hopefully, research released will encourage the medical community to expand Hepatitis C education and awareness to include children.

Prevalence in Kids

Likely because fewer children have Hepatitis C than adults, medical professionals rarely consider it as a possibility for kids. Experts estimate the following statistics about children in the U.S. with the virus:

  • 0.2 percent of children younger than 12 years old have HCV
  • 0.4 percent of children between 12 and 19 years old have HCV
  • Approximately 240,000 children are infected with HCV

Even though the number of new HCV infections in adults is declining, new infections in children continue to occur – mostly as a result of being born to Hepatitis C-infected mothers.

About the Research

Dr. Aymin Delgado-Borrego, a pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine led an investigation on the lapse of awareness about kids with Hepatitis C.

The state of Florida was chosen for Delgado-Borrego’s study because it is one of the few states that require all cases of HCV to be reported to the local health department. Based on the estimates of how many children in the U.S. are infected with Hepatitis C, the researchers expected to find over 12,000 cases of pediatric HCV in Florida. Instead, they found the following:

  • 1,755 identified cases of pediatric Hepatitis C in Florida – only 14.4 percent of the expected number of cases
  • Only about 1.2 percent of children with Hepatitis C were receiving treatment by a pediatric hepatologist

According to Delgado-Borrego, “Our study showed a lack of adequate identification of Hepatitis C virus infection in children that could be widespread throughout the nation. Not only was there a lack of proper identification (of Hepatitis C), but among the children that have been identified the percentage of those receiving medical care is extremely and unacceptably low.”

Why HCV in Kids Goes Unnoticed

Regardless of age, those infected with Hepatitis C rarely have symptoms – until the illness has progressed to advanced liver disease. If there are any symptoms, they are usually vague (like fatigue or abdominal pain) and are thus easily dismissed. Since Hepatitis C is transmitted from blood to blood contact, it’s no wonder that it is rarely considered for diagnosing a child.

Healthcare professionals believe that about 60 percent of HCV infection in kids occurs from being born to a mother with the virus. Referred to as vertical transmission, only about 4 of every 100 infants born to mothers with Hepatitis C become infected. While this is a relatively low likelihood, a good portion of those with Hepatitis C don’t know they have it – and that includes expectant mothers. Even though there is a small chance of vertical transmission, getting tested for Hepatitis C is not yet part of routine prenatal care.

As far as the remaining 40 percent of kids with HCV, the origins of their infection remain largely unknown. Some surmise that teenagers may be engaging in high-risk behaviors such as IV drug use, sharing other drug equipment or tattooing and piercing under unlicensed, unsanitary conditions.

Hopefully, Delgado-Borrego’s study will serve as a red flag to parents and practitioners of obstetric and pediatric medicine. With the realization that prenatal testing for Hepatitis C should be routine, then infants born with the virus can get help sooner rather than later. In addition, Hepatitis C should be considered as a differential diagnostic choice for children or teens complaining of fatigue and stomach pain. These shifts in pediatric HCV awareness will give infected kids a better chance of fighting the virus before advanced liver disease sets in.

References:

http://www.ahealthyme.com/topic/hepcyouth, Youth and Hepatitis C, Paige Bierma, Retrieved May 16, 2010, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Inc, 2010.

http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c/cfaq.htm, Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public, Retrieved May 16, 2010, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010.

http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hcsp/articles/hcv_children_2006.html, Hepatitis C in Children: Update 2006, Philip Rosenthal, MD, Retrieved May 16, 2010, Hepatitis C Support Project, 2010.

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/print/news/fullstory_98295.html, Many Kids With Hepatitis C Are Missed, Retrieved May 15, 2010, HealthDay, May 2010.

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