By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s a hidden and deadly virus that can be easily treated but doctors say too many people don’t realize they need help.

Starting in January, the state of Pennsylvania lifted restrictions that covered treatment of Hepatitis C only to those with advanced liver disease, because the drugs are so expensive.

Hepatitis C spreads through contact with contaminated blood and it is the deadliest communicable disease in the country.

New Hepatitis C infections have tripled in five years, driven largely by the opioid epidemic.

Mark Kinzly, a recovered addict, contracted the disease from injecting drugs.

“Hep C is such a silent epidemic that is really not understood well enough in our overall community,” Kinzly said.

It’s called a silent epidemic because there are usually no symptoms. More than half of Americans who carry the virus don’t realize it.

“Because majority of our patients don’t know they have the infection, by the time they’re present with symptoms, they have advanced liver disease,” Dr. Eyob Feyssa of Einstein Health explained.

Dr. Feyssa, who runs the Hepatitis program at Einstein, says when left untreated, Hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage.

He says everyone should be tested because Hep C is also a risk for dialysis patients and people who had blood transfusions before 1990, when blood wasn’t as tested.

“We have medications which can cure their infection; it is an important step,” Dr. Feyssa said.

Now, more people will be able to get treated.

“I think lifting this restriction will encourage individuals to get tested, get screened and get therapy,” Dr. Feyssa said.

Without that therapy, Hepatitis C is the leading cause for liver transplants. People can be screened for with a simple blood test.

It’s estimated that millions could be living with Hep C and don’t know it.

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