Contact tracing has been a key element of the public health response to infectious diseases for decades. These practices have been powerful in slowing the spread of tuberculosis, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections. Despite success in other contexts, contact tracing for hepatitis C virus (HCV) has historically been considered infeasible because of a long asymptomatic period, which often makes it difficult to pinpoint the time of acquisition. Additionally, individuals may be reluctant to identify injecting partners because of stigma or fear of criminal repercussions. However, multiple factors – including the improved curability of HCV with advances in direct acting antiviral agents (DAAs), the implementation of age-based screening, and the current opioid epidemic — have led to rapid changes in the landscape of HCV. HCV is increasingly concentrated among young people who inject drugs (PWID), many of whom are inadequately being reached by current screening practices. With the shift in the population most at risk for HCV and the fundamental changes in how we manage this disease, it’s time to also rethink the public health response in identifying and informing those who may have been exposed. Contact tracing programs for HCV can augment existing screening strategies to provide curative treatment for patients and their partners, prevent reciprocal transmission of HCV between risk partners and within networks, and ultimately reach individuals who aren’t yet engaged in healthcare and harm reduction. While there remain limitations to contact tracing for HCV, it has the potential to be a powerful tool in slowing the spread of the virus as we attempt to achieve viral elimination.
Contact tracing for hepatitis C: The case for novel screening strategies as we strive for viral elimination