The Department of Veterans Affairs Wilmington Medical Center has sent a letter to enrolled veterans urging them to be tested for hepatitis C.

The letter was sent to veterans who are enrolled at the main hospital in Wilmington and each of its five outpatient clinics in Dover, and Georgetown in Delaware, and  Vineland, Northfield and Cape May in New Jersey,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all people between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C virus, and the VA is offering testing for all enrolled veterans as a preventive part of their health care.

While early hepatitis C infection may not cause symptoms, over many years it may cause liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver failure or even liver cancer, according to a VA press release.

During the first week following the letter being sent, more than 200 new screenings for hepatitis C were completed, and 3 percent of the screenings resulted in new diagnoses of hepatitis C. By comparison, between October and December of 2016, there were 442 hepatitis C screens that resulted in approximately 3 percent positive results.

Bob Callahan, interim medical center director said, “Our initiative to expand testing for hepatitis is effective. More veterans are getting tested who normally wouldn’t, we are finding instances of hepatitis C far earlier - before the disease progresses and we are able to engage treatment faster, improving health outcomes for our veterans.

"Early discovery and treatment is critical to avoid the long-term complications associated with chronic untreated hepatitis C infection.”

Because of the expanded testing, veterans will now receive potentially lifesaving therapy.

Hepatitis C is a virus carried in the blood that can cause liver disease. It can be spread in several ways including recreational drug use, needle sharing, accidental needle sticks, sharing of personal care items like a razors or toothbrushes, tattoos or body piercings, receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, long-term kidney dialysis, being a Vietnam era veteran, and, in rare instances, sexual contact with someone who is infected with the virus.

“The newer drug regimens are much more tolerable than the older interferon-based antiviral treatments,” said Rena Johnson, nurse practitioner and hepatitis treatment coordinator at the Wilmington VA Medical Center. “We’re finding by using newer drugs we are having very high rates of success curing Hep C, something not possible in the past.

"This is great news because it means the treatment is becoming simpler, has less side effects, a shorter length of treatment and more likely to result in a permanent cure.”

Veterans who wish to be tested may contact their primary care team, request testing directly at the outpatient lab at the Wilmington VA or at any of the outpatient clinics. Once test results are completed, veterans will receive a follow-up letter or a phone call explaining the results.

For more information on VA care for hepatitis C, see www.hepatitis.va.gov and www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/hcv/index.asp.