MONDAY, June 18, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly 27 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles may have hepatitis C, and nearly half don't know they have the potentially deadly infection, researchers say.
Hepatitis C virus can destroy the liver and lead to a liver transplant. Recent research shows that it kills more American adults than AIDS.
For the study, researchers surveyed 534 homeless adults, most of them black men, between June 2003 and February 2004.
Tests revealed that 26.7 percent of the study participants were infected with the hepatitis C virus -- a rate more than 10 times higher than the 2 percent rate in the general U.S. population. Of the infected people in the study, 46 percent did not know they had hepatitis C.
Less than 3 percent of those who knew they were infected had ever been treated, according to the researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Infection rates were much higher among those who had injected drugs or been in prison; those aged 40 or older; people with less education; U.S.-born adults; those with three or more tattoos; and users of serious non-injection drugs (excluding marijuana).
Sexual behaviors were not significantly related to hepatitis C infection, according to the study published in the July-August issue of the journal Public Health Reports.
"This and previous studies demonstrate that urban homeless adults in the U.S. are at high risk for hepatitis C virus infection," concluded study co-leader Dr. Lillian Gelberg, a professor of family medicine, and colleagues.
"Homeless adults need interventions that include hepatitis C virus education, counseling, voluntary testing and treatment services," the researchers wrote. "Hepatitis C virus prevention and treatment programs could be modeled after relevant successful interventions developed for U.S. homeless persons with HIV/AIDS."
The authors acknowledged some study limitations. While hepatitis C infection rates were based on blood tests, some of the other study measures relied on self-reporting, which is subject to recall bias.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more about hepatitis C.