Hepatitis C used to be a nearly incurable disease that caused serious liver problems, including cirrhosis, cancer and often death. Now, however, people with hepatitis C have hope for a healthy, hepatitis-free future.
A bit of background
Hepatitis C is a virus that attacks the liver. Left untreated, it results in long-term, progressive liver disease.
The human liver is at the top of the abdomen under the ribs on the right side of the body. It’s one of the largest organs in our bodies. A healthy liver plays an important role in metabolism, converting nutrients from our food into substances our bodies can use. It also stores nutrients for later use and cleans toxic materials from our blood. Over time, hepatitis C can prevent the liver from functioning properly.
An estimated 3 million to 4 million Americans have hepatitis C. Unfortunately because the disease typically causes no or minimal symptoms, half of those people don’t even know they’re infected. When symptoms do arise, they are usually vague, ranging from fatigue to abdominal discomfort.
Because most people don’t know they’re infected, they don’t seek treatment until their liver is severely damaged. Symptoms at that point are more dramatic: confusion, muscle wasting, jaundice and ascites (abdominal swelling caused by fluid in the abdomen).
The delay in diagnosis and treatment has resulted in hepatitis C becoming the No. 1 cause of primary liver cancer and the No. 1 reason for liver transplantation in the United States.
Risk factors and baby boomers
Hepatitis C is a communicable, blood-borne disease. That means you can get it if blood from an infected person enters your body. A vaccination has not yet been developed to prevent infection.
You’re at high risk if you:
- Have ever injected drugs and shared needles with anyone
- Are a health care worker and have been injured by a needlestick
- Received any tattoos or body piercings with non-sterile instruments
- Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received a blood-clotting product made before 1987
- Have been on kidney dialysis for a long time
- Have had sex with a person infected with hepatitis C
- Have HIV
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all baby boomers – everyone born between 1945 and 1965 – should get screened at least once for hepatitis C. American adults born between these years have the highest rates of infection. If you were born during these years or have other risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened. Screening entails a simple blood test, which is typically covered by insurance.
The good news
Hepatitis C was discovered in 1989 by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Early treatments proved ineffective and caused unpleasant side effects. However, over the ensuing decades, researchers developed new therapies that generally cause minimal side effects and are highly effective.
Due to this groundbreaking research, typical treatments now involve taking a pill or two daily for two to three months. More than 95 percent of patients taking these new medications are completely cured of the disease!
Talk to your doctor. Get screened and, if you are infected, get treatment. Now that hepatitis C is curable, your liver and your future look healthy and bright!
For more information on hepatitis C, talk to your primary care provider, read our previous blog article or call the Swedish Liver Center at 206-215-1437.