A simple blood test can uncover a silent hepatitis C infection.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection which affects primary the liver, and it is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). According to the American Liver Foundation, chronic hepatitis C can seriously damage your liver. It can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. Earlier before, hepatitis C treatment involved long-term therapy which was not very effective. Luckily, nowadays there are new medications which can effectively cure this condition. However, these medications are quite expensive. Hepatitis C can be considered a cured when the virus is not detectable in the body at 12 and 24 weeks after the treatment.
Here are 10 essential facts you should know about hepatitis C:
1. Hepatitis C affects millions of Americans.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people who are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C is 2.7 million. “It is called the ‘silent epidemic’ because people can be infected for 30 or more years and have no idea they have it,” says Camilla Graham, MD, infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The first symptoms of hepatitis C are nausea and fatigue which can be difficult for doctors to suspect hepatitis C, add she.
Ibrahim Hanouneh, MD, hepatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio says that by the time routine blood tests reveal increased levels of certain enzymes, the liver may already be damaged.
2. The most common hepatitis C strain in the United States is genotype 1.
Hepatitis C virus includes six common types. Almost 75 percent of hepatitis C cases here are genotype 1, and 12 percent are genotype 2, with fewer cases of genotypes 3 to 6.
3. You might not realize you have serious liver damage.
Unfortunately, in most of the cases, by the time the hepatitis C symptoms appear, fatal liver damage has already occurred, says Dr. Graham. According to the CDC, of every 100 people with hepatitis C, 5 to 20 will suffer from cirrhosis, and 1-5% will die from this disease or from liver cancer.
The symptoms of liver damage and end-stage hepatitis C disease are: extreme fatigue, weight loss, weakness, severely itchy skin, confusion, jaundice, and a buildup of abdominal fluid.
4. The hepatitis C virus is spread by contact with infected blood.
According to the CDC, the risk group are healthcare workers who accidentally came into contact with contaminated needles and babies born to hepatitis-infected mothers.
Also, there is a low risk of this virus being transmitted during sexual intercourse. Tattoos, piercings using unsterile equipment or sharing needles for drug use are the most common ways of getting hepatitis C nowadays, explains Graham.
5. All baby boomers need to get a hepatitis C test.
According to Graham, people born between 1945 and 1965 have a 1 in 30 chance of having hepatitis C. Also, the CDC says that a huge number of people were infected during the 70s and 80s when the rates of the infection were highest.
6. There is no hepatitis C vaccine.
Unfortunately, there is still no vaccine available because there are various types of hepatitis C, says Graham. The best prevention is to avoid sharing needles.
7. Hepatitis C treatment is advancing rapidly.
Previously, the common treatments for hepatitis C included interferon injections and ribavirin pills which were only 40-50 percent effective. Furthermore, these treatments had serious side effects, including extreme fatigue, depression, flu-like symptoms and suicide risk. Fortunately, drugs approved in 2014 managed to cure almost 90% of hepatitis C patients. However, these new drugs cost more than $94,000 for a 12-week supply, and insurers do not pay for hepatitis C therapy unless the patient already has a serious liver damage.
Drug treatment options for the most common hepatitis C viral strain in the United States, genotype 1, include:
Harvoni: a combination of Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) and ledipasvir. Most people take one pill on daily basis for 8 to 12 weeks, says Graham.
Viekira Pak: ombitasvir, paritaprevir, and ritonavir co-formulated into two pills taken once a day, plus a dasabuvir pill twice a day, for 12 to 24 weeks. “Around 85 percent of people in the U.S. will also need ribavirin, which can cause anemia, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping,” Graham says.
Olysio (simeprevir): a protease inhibitor taken in combination with peginterferon alfa and ribavirin for 12 weeks. The peginterferon/ribavirin therapy continues for 12 to 36 weeks after patients stop taking Olysio.
8. If you have hepatitis C, simple precautions can protect others.
“Do not share personal items that could have even tiny amounts of blood, like toothbrushes, razors, clippers, et cetera,” Graham says. “Keep these items in a separate kit so nobody accidentally shares them.”
The ALF suggests cleaning any spilled blood immediately using a solution of bleach and water, covering cuts and wound with bandages, and disposing of anything that ha blood on it, such as tampons and bandages.
9. Even after you are cured of the virus, you still need checkups.
According to the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD), cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C involves lifelong observing for liver cancer and doing abdominal ultrasound every six months.
10. A liver transplant is not a cure for hepatitis C.
According to Hanouneh, irreparable damage from hepatitis C is the major cause of liver transplantation in the U.S. However, even after transplantation you will need to take medications in order to get rid of hepatitis C.
Also, it is recommended that you avoid alcohol consumption and lose weight. Too much alcohol can damage your liver even without having hepatitis C and it can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. “It’s a second hit on the liver,” says Hanouneh.
Fatty liver disease-excess fat buildup in the liver is the major cause of liver disease in the United States. Therefore, it is essential to keep normal bod weight in order to prevent liver damage.