SAN FRANCISCO – Emergency departments are the ideal place to screen for hepatitis C infection, according to investigators from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
Current recommendations call for screening baby boomers born from 1945 to 1965 and patients with risk factors, especially injection drug use. The problem is that the guidelines don’t say, exactly, how and where that should be done, so uptake has been spotty. Also, people aren’t exactly forthcoming when it comes to admitting IV drug use.
Enter universal screening in the ED. Vanderbilt is one of several academic centers that have adopted the approach, and others are following suit. Across the board, they’ve found that HCV infection is more common than projections based on baby boomer and risk factor demographics suggest, and, even more importantly, the boomer/risk factor strategy misses a large number of active cases, said Cody A. Chastain, MD, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt, who led the ED screening initiative.
In short, universal screening in the ED would keep people from falling through the cracks.
From April 2017 to March 2018, every adult who had blood drawn at Vanderbilt’s tertiary care ED was asked by a nurse if they’d also like to be checked for HCV, so long as they were alert enough for the conversation. If they agreed, an additional phlebotomy tube was added to the draw, and sent off for testing. Fewer than 5% of patients opted out.
Antibody positive samples were automatically screened for active disease by HCV RNA. Results were entered into the medical record and shared with patients at discharge. Active cases were counseled and offered linkage to care, regardless of insurance status.
The initiative screened 11,637 patients; 1,008 (8.7%) were antibody positive, of whom 488 (48%) were RNA positive. Thirty-seven percent of the active cases were in non–baby boomers – most born after 1965 – with no known injection drug use. The baby boomer/risk factor model would have missed most of them.
Also, spontaneous clearance – antibody positive, RNA negative without HCV treatment – “is dramatically higher” than what’s thought. “The historic estimate of 20% clearly is not reflected” in the Vanderbilt results, nor in similar universal screening studies; “spontaneous clearance is about 50% or so,” Dr. Chastain said.
Even so, “virtually every study published in this space finds more cases of infection than traditional screening would find. [Our work] is just one more piece of data” to indicate the usefulness of the approach. “Emergency departments [are] ideal for hepatitis C screening,” he said at IDWeek, an annual scientific meeting on infectious diseases, where he presented the findings.
“This is well trodden territory; we’ve already addressed it with HIV. We recognized that HIV screening had a stigma and was a challenge, [so we] moved to universal screening” of all adults, at least once. It “drastically improved screening rates. I don’t see a rational reason” not to do this for hepatitis C. “There are very well-meaning people who engage in the cost effectiveness side of this discussion, but I don’t think it helps us in our efforts to control this epidemic from a public health standpoint,” Dr. Chastain said.
Vanderbilt continues to screen for HCV in the ED; the next step is to see how well efforts to link active cases with care are working. Many times during the study, Dr. Chastain said positive patients eventually revealed that they already knew they had HCV, but had been told there was nothing they could do about it, so they didn’t get care. Maybe they were told that because they didn’t have insurance.
Vanderbilt has dropped screening ED patients born before 1945 because the odds of picking up an unknown HCV infection proved to be tiny, and, in any case, patients are generally too comorbid for treatment. It’s made screening more efficient.
Dr. Chastain reported that he had no personal disclosures. The study was funded by Vanderbilt, which receives grants from pharmaceutical companies.
SOURCE: Chastain C et al. 2018 ID Week, Abstract 932.