There is a new approach to stop the spread of hepatitis C and help protecting babies from a common virus striking their mothers.

Hepatitis C cases are on the rise – fueled by the opioid epidemic and the use of needles. Born from the crisis – there is an uptick in women of child-bearing age who learn they have the virus during pregnancy.

Dr Lynn Yee is a maternal fetal medicine physician with Northwestern Medicine.

“We’re seeing a dramatic increase of Hep C in the United States because it’s a hidden epidemic that really parallels the opioid epidemic,” she said.

It’s a virus – often spread by needle drug use — that impacts the liver.

“Hepatitis C can cause chronic liver scarring and fibrosis,” Yee said. “It can eventually contribute to liver cancer and liver failure and lots of long-term complications we hope to prevent.”

Learn more at Northwestern Medicine’s Women’s Infectious Disease Program site

Pregnant women who test positive have a 5 to 15 percent chance of passing hepatitis c to their unborn babies.

“We hope to get that down to zero with potentially treating people,” Yee said.

Yee says every woman who is expecting should be tested and offered what are called direct-acting anti-viral medications. The drugs are curative – though not commonly offered during pregnancy.

“The evidence is growing that these DAAs are safe in pregnancy and well tolerated and although we don’t have large studies outside of pregnancy the evidence is very promising,” Yee said. “We think this is the future of Hep C care.”

So far, doctors have cured five patients using the powerful and effective anti-viral drugs. The moms and their babies will continue to be monitored for any long-term side effects from the treatment.

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