Hepatitis C in Black Americans: What to Know About Your Risk

Why is hepatitis C more common in Black Americans?

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Hepatitis C affects some population groups more than others. Black Americans were twice as likely to get infected with hepatitis C in 2018 compared to the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They’re also more likely to die from the infection.

Why does hepatitis C disproportionately affect Black Americans?

1. Living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)

HIV makes it harder for your body to fight off infections, including hepatitis C. Both HIV and hepatitis C spread through blood, and they share many of the same risk factors. Black Americans make up close to half of people living with HIV.

People with HIV are more likely to have severe progression of hepatitis C. This may be one reason why Black Americans have higher mortality rates from hepatitis C.

2. Rates of injection drug use

One of the risk factors that HIV and hepatitis C share is injection drug use. Sharing used needles may transfer infections from one person to another. Injecting drugs while having HIV puts you at a very high risk.

3. The high rates of sickle cell disease, which affects the blood

Sickle cell disease disproportionately affects Black Americans. This is an inherited blood disorder that affects the health of the red blood cells. People with this disease often need a blood transfusion to help prevent anemia.

Hepatitis C wasn’t identified until the 1980s and ‘90s. People who received blood donations before 1992 may have a higher risk of hepatitis C. (Today, blood banks screen for hepatitis C, among other infections.)

4. Reduced rates of treatment success

Earlier medications for hepatitis C were less effective overall, but they were even less effective for Black Americans. Plus, Black Americans often faced more barriers to accessing hepatitis C medications. This means those who had hepatitis C were less likely to be cured and more likely to experience liver damage, which can be fatal.

What should you know about managing your hepatitis C risk?

While the above factors may be disheartening, there are reasons to stay optimistic. For starters, today’s hepatitis C medications (direct-acting antivirals) are much more effective.

There are also preventive measures that can help reduce your risk of hepatitis C. These include:

  • Routine hepatitis C testing: Every adult should get tested at least once in their lifetime. You may need additional testing based on your risk factors.
  • Getting treatment for HIV: This can help preserve your immune system.
  • Avoiding injection drug use — or at least not sharing needles
  • Using condoms during sex

Getting diagnosed with hepatitis C may be emotional, but don’t delay testing. Knowing your status may help you detect hepatitis C earlier. That way, you can start life-saving treatment and prevent liver damage.