In a few shorts weeks on July 28th, we recognize World Hepatitis Day, set aside to raise awareness about the millions of individuals living with chronic hepatitis, many of whom never know they even have the disease. In the United States, Hepatitis C is an important cause of chronic hepatitis. In fact, it is the most common reason an individual would need to undergo a liver transplant. Let’s take a few minutes to better understand this disease and why it is also important for many seniors.
What is Hepatitis C and how does infection occur?
Hepatitis C (HCV) is a virus that causes infection, inflammation, and damage to the liver. It is considered a blood-borne infection, meaning that transmission can occur with exposure to blood products or body fluids that may contain blood. Before the early 1990’s when widespread testing became available, some individuals contracted HCV from blood transfusions or organ transplants. Today, the most common means of transmission is via injection drug use. The virus can also be contracted at childbirth if the mother is HCV positive.
What makes Hepatitis C so dangerous is that only 20-30% of individuals will experience acute symptoms such as fever, nausea/vomiting, jaundice, etc. This means that approximately 70% of individuals with HCV won’t even know that they are infected unless they undergoing testing.
When hepatitis C goes untreated for years, this causes progressive inflammation and can lead to permanent liver injury, and can increase the risk of liver cancer. This progression of disease is what makes hepatitis C the number one reason for liver transplant.
Who should get tested?
Approximately 2.4 million individuals in the US are living with chronic Hepatitis C infection. For reasons that are not entirely known, approximately 75% of these individuals were born between 1945-1965. For this reason, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other organizations, recommend that everyone born during this time period receive a screening test for HCV.
Additionally, testing is recommended for anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992, anyone who is on hemodialysis, or anyone born to a mother with HCV infection. Any current or former injection drug users, even if it was only one time in the distant past, should also get tested for HCV infection.
Again, it is important to remember that chronic hepatitis C infection can be asymptomatic. Thus, it is important to detect the disease in at risk individuals so that treatment can be given before permanent liver damage occurs.
What happens if I am diagnosed with Hepatitis C?
For anyone newly diagnosed with hepatitis C virus, it is essential to see a physician who is up to date on the most recent treatment guidelines. Significant medical breakthroughs have occurred in the last decade that makes a cure possible for up to 90% of persons with chronic HCV infection. In many cases, oral medications taken for 8-12 weeks may be all that is needed. While these medications still have some side effects, they are much better tolerated than the older medications that were formerly used to treat HCV before 2011. Additional diagnostic tests may also be needed to evaluate the degree of liver damage that has been caused by the virus. These may include blood tests and imaging tests. Your physician will be able to track the level of the virus over time until it is undetectable.
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Francesca Robinson, MA