Understanding Hepatitis C
Could you be walking around unaware that you have a silent, deadly disease? The answer is yes for three out of four people with hepatitis C. They have the disease but have not experienced symptoms or been tested. An estimated 75 percent of those with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965.
National prevalence data show that people born during this 20-year span are five times more likely than other adults to be infected with the virus.
How Do I Know if I Have the Virus?
For that reason, one lifetime hepatitis C screening is resoundingly recommended for everyone born during that time frame, regardless of risk factors. It’s a simple blood test that can save your life, because once hepatitis C is detected, it’s almost always curable. Untreated, this contagious liver disease can lead to liver cancer, liver failure and death.
Why is Hepatitis C Misunderstood?
Hepatitis C has been described as the forgotten illness. A lot of people simply don’t know about it. One reason is it’s silent – or lacks obvious symptoms. People can go decades without realizing they have the virus.
Another reason is the misconception that it doesn’t happen to “average” people because it’s transmitted through the blood of an infected person entering the body of someone who is not infected – often through illicit drug use. But it does happen to average people every day.
In the U.S. an estimated 3.5 million adults have chronic hepatitis C. A study conducted in 1999 found that one in 10 Vietnam veterans in the Veterans Health Administration system tested positive for the disease. Country singer Naomi Judd spoke out about dealing with hepatitis C, which she believes she contracted from a needle stick decades earlier when she was a nurse.
A blood transfusion was the source of hepatitis C for baseball great Mickey Mantle, who died of liver cancer in 1995. Stunt man Evel Knievel also contracted it from a blood transfusions after a 1969 car accident, but was able to be successfully treated and cured.
The simple truth is many people never know how or when they were infected. Some discover they have it by accident, such as through a blood test required for getting life insurance.
Is It Curable?
The good news is antiviral medications can cure more than 95% of people with a hepatitis C infection. We are at a point that we have medicines that are curative in as little as eight weeks. Treatment is also more affordable than ever before.
My advice to baby boomers: Don’t wait. Instead of guessing that it probably couldn’t happen to you, be sure. Get tested. The first step? Talk to your primary care provider.
Risk Factors for Hepatitis C Transmission Include:
- If you had an organ transplant before 1992
- Having a blood transfusion before 1992
- Having a history of long-term kidney dialysis
- Being born to a mother with the disease
- Injecting illegal drugs, even just once years ago
- Using intranasal drugs
- Having HIV or AIDS
- Being born between 1945 and 1965
- Having tattoos or piercings
- Having been incarcerated
- Undergoing invasive procedures at health care facilities with inadequate infection control practices
Robyn Teply is a Clinical Pharmacist at CHI Health.