The U.S Center for Disease Control has recently released new screening guidelines for hepatitis C to include all individuals born between 1945 and 1965. This “baby boomer” cohort represents the largest segment of the population which could be diagnosed and die from the lethal effects of hepatitis C infection.
It is estimated that 1 in 30 boomers has been infected with the hepatitis virus, and sadly many are unaware of the damage that can occur when the virus is left untreated. The CDC’s recommendation of expanding the screening protocol from those previously considered high risk to the new group is estimated to help identify close to a million more Americans with the virus. Understanding how the hepatitis C virus affects the body and can lead to liver damage and disease will hopefully encourage all baby boomers to heed the call of the CDC to get a one-time blood test to check your hepatitis C status.
Hepatitis by definition means swelling and inflammation of the liver and is most commonly caused by hepatitis virus. The three most common strains are hepatitis A, B, and C. Currently there are vaccinations against hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A is generally associated with acute hepatitis. This virus is usually transmitted by eating or drinking food or water that has been contaminated by others with hepatitis A through feces. Hepatitis A infections are more common in other countries where sanitation may be problematic. This is why travelers are often advised to get vaccinated against hepatitis A. Hepatitis B virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids of others with the hepatitis B virus such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluids among others.
Hepatitis B is often spread by sexual intercourse or contact with infected blood. Anywhere you might come in contact with blood can be a potential site of transmission. Health care providers are susceptible to needle sticks. Consumers of tattoos and manicure can be infected by improperly sterilized needles and grooming equipment. Intravenous drug users are at risk if they share needles. Luckily there is also a vaccination against hepatitis B virus, which can help reduce the spread of hepatitis B, which can cause long-term damage to the liver.
Currently there is no vaccination against the hepatitis C virus, so it is important that those infected know their status so they do not spread the virus to others. Hepatitis C is spread chiefly in the United States by sharing needles to inject illegal drugs. Individuals who received blood, blood products, or organ donation prior to 1992 are also at increased risk of having hepatitis C. Health care workers also have a greater risk of acquiring hepatitis C because of the change of needle sticks by infected patients. Lesser risks are associated with tattooing and piercing because sterilization techniques have improved over the years, but the risk is still not zero. It is also uncommon, but mother-to- infant transmission can occur during delivery, so high-risk pregnant women are screened for hepatitis C to prevent the likelihood of this occurrence.
The majority of individuals with hepatitis C have what is called chronic hepatitis, and many do not even know they have the virus. Acute hepatitis C is usually of short duration and does not have long-term effects. Chronic hepatitis C slowly over time damages the liver and can lead to life-threatening diseases like cirrhosis, liver cancer, and eventual liver failure. The majority of liver transplants in the United States are attributed to hepatitis C. The long window of progression of disease is what helps the virus spread so stealthily. Decades before a person gets the associated symptoms of liver disease such as fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and jaundice, they may have already spread the diseases to others. They have also been denied the several treatment options that are now available to hepatitis C positive individuals. Healthcare providers have several treatment options including antiviral medications. Current treatments include identifying the genotypes of the virus and customizing a medication protocol that can help to reduce the viral load, thus slowing the progression of liver disease.
In additional to receiving the latest treatment options, those who screen positively for hepatitis C can modify lifestyle behaviors that will slow disease progression, such as avoiding alcohol use, which will hasten liver damage. Likewise, certain medication and herbal supplements should be avoided because they can be toxic to someone with liver disease. In the next five years, the hepatitis C virus may also join the ranks of hepatitis A and B with its own vaccine. However until that day comes, early screening is the best way to know your virus status. Ask your healthcare provider about this important screening tool that can possibly save your liver and your life.
Dr. Hardy is the solo physician with Atlantic Ob/Gyn with locations in Va. Beach and Chesapeake. Call 757-463-1234 or 757-548-0044 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.