By Mothusi Chilume, MD
Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver and eventually cause scarring of the liver if not treated. The virus is spread through blood so people who have shared needles or have had blood transfusions in the past are at high risk for having the infection and should be tested. There are currently over three million people infected with Hepatitis C in the US.
There are no specific symptoms associated with Hepatitis C and many who have Hepatitis C have no symptoms. These symptoms may include fatigue, muscle aches, weight loss and poor appetite. Those who have had the infection for a long time and have developed scarring or cirrhosis of the liver may also have symptoms such as swelling in the feet and abdomen, easy bruising or bleeding, yellowing of the eyes and skin or confusion.
Hepatitis C is diagnosed by a blood test that can detect the virus. Those who should get screened for the infection due to increased risk include those born between the years of 1945 to 1965, those who have ever shared needles, those who have been diagnosed with HIV, those who have had blood transfusions (especially before 1990), and those who have had sex with someone who might have the infection. For those who already have the infection, there are additional tests that need to be done to check for liver damage from scarring caused by the virus.
There are many new medications available for treating Hepatitis C, which are better tolerated than some of the older medications. Treatment is based on the particular type of the virus that one is infected with. Treatment can last for 3 months to a year and can be in the form of pills or injectable medicines.
Living with Hepatitis C
People living with Hepatitis C can live normal lives without worrying about spreading the virus through normal everyday contact with friends and family. It is important for them to protect their liver by avoiding substances that can further damage the liver. These substances include use of alcohol or certain medications. It is also important to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, which are viruses that can also infect the liver.
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, which aims to increase the awareness and understanding of viral hepatitis as a global health threat. The date is the birthday of Nobel Laureate Professor Baruch Samuel Blumberg, who discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1964.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 400 million people around the world have chronic viral hepatitis, but most do not know they are infected. More than a million people die each year from causes related to viral hepatitis, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
If you are a baby boomer, shared needles, had a blood transfusion before 1990, have HIV, or have questions or concerns about hepatitis, please speak with you primary care provider or someone from your medical team.