Hep C is contracted from the blood of an infected person: sharing a needle with someone who is infected – even through an infected tattoo needle.
Dear Answer Guy: I’ve heard a lot about hepatitis C in TV commercials and in magazine articles. What is it?
A: A dictionary definition of hep C reads: Hepatitis C is a form of liver inflammation that causes primarily a long-lasting (chronic) disease. Newly developed hepatitis C is rarely observed because the early disease is generally quite mild. Spread mainly by contact with infected blood, the hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes most cases of viral liver infection not due to the A and B hepatitis viruses.
In fact, hepatitis C once was referred to as “non-A, non-B hepatitis.” It is not a new infection, just newly diagnosable and has been widely present in the U.S. population for decades.
Q: How many Americans have hepatitis C?
A: Estimates are that between 2.7 million to 3 million Americans have hepatitis C. It’s a disease that is without symptoms for years before it begins to scar a person’s liver, and that leads to cancer, organ failure, the need for a transplant or death.
In New Mexico, about 30,000 people have hepatitis C, according to Dr. Sanjeev Arora, an expert on the disease and a tenured professor of medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
“As many as half the people are not diagnosed,” and 75 percent of those are baby boomers, Arora said. Baby boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964.
Some statistics show that between 15,000 and 20,000 Americans are infected with hep C every year. The disease kills 500,000 worldwide a year. In New Mexico, we have about 3,000 infections reported each year (as of 2012), according to State Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen. “Approximately 75 to 90 percent of people who are infected develop chronic infections,” Landen said.
Q: How can I catch or become infected with hep C?
A: Hep C is contracted from the blood of an infected person: sharing a needle with someone who is infected – even through an infected tattoo needle. Long-term dialysis patients also are at risk.
Other ways include using a razor or a toothbrush of someone with hep C. Healthcare professionals are especially at risk because they come into contact with blood on a regular basis.
Years ago, a person could become infected through a blood transfusion, although since 1992 all blood donors have been screened for hep C. Because symptoms can remain hidden for decades, a person needs to be tested to see if they are infected with the disease.
It is even possible to spread hepatitis C through sex, although this is rare. If you don’t (or have not in the past) practiced safe sex or have had multiple partners, the risk increases.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), anemia, swelling of the abdomen (ascites), fatigue, lack of energy, fever, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, dark or tea-colored urine and gray-colored stools are some of the symptoms.
You can have hep C for 20 or even 30 years before eventually it’s diagnosed, and this lag time can lead to cirrhosis, cancer, or death.
Q: What does it take to get diagnosed?
A: Ask your doctor for a blood test to see if you have the disease. If you do, further testing can determine the amount of virus and the type of hepatitis C (there are various genotypes) and reveal whether you already have suffered liver damage. Additional tests might include a sonogram or CAT scan.
Q: Are there treatments?
A: Not everyone who has hepatitis C needs immediate treatment. If your doctor determines you can benefit from treatment, antiviral medications might be prescribed. Several drugs are on the market now, and more are coming out regularly, which means costs are coming down. The length of treatment varies from eight to 12 weeks.
“It’s a very exciting time for treatment,” Arora said. “Never before could I imagine patients with advanced liver disease being cured.” The new drugs are “a complete game changer,” he said.
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