Hepatitis C is an infectious disease that primarily affects the liver. During the initial infection, people often have mild or no symptoms. But the virus persists in the liver in about 75-85 percent of those initially infected, which can lead to liver disease and occasionally cirrhosis.
Here’s what you need to know about hepatitis C.
Are you at risk of having hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection?
There are two main populations of people who are a higher risk for HCV infection than the general population.
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First, if you were born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you learn your hepatitis C status by being tested for the disease at least one time. This age group has been found in surveys to have a higher number of individuals who test positive on a HCV antibody test.
Second, the most common way for people to become infected is by sharing needles or other equipment used to inject drugs.
HCV infection also can be spread to an infant from a mother who has hepatitis C. Also, before 1992, when wide-scale screening of the blood supply began in the United States, hepatitis C was spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
And although it is uncommon, a person can become infected with hepatitis C virus by sharing personal care items such as razors and toothbrushes that may have come in contact with an infected individual’s blood, or through sexual contact with an infected individual.
How is hepatitis C virus infection spread?
I have mentioned groups of people who may be at risk for getting infected with the HCV. Hepatitis C is most commonly spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is uninfected. We recommend that anyone who has risk factors for hepatitis C get tested.
It also is important that everyone knows how hepatitis C is transmitted to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Why get tested for HCV infection?
There are at least two reasons to get tested.
One, it is important to know whether you are infected with the virus so you can take extra care of yourself, your health and your liver.
Two, when you know if you are infected or not, you can take care to not infect other people around you.
What should I do if I test positive for the hepatitis C virus antibody?
If you get tested and you are positive for the HCV antibody, there are several steps to follow.
First, we recommend that you get the confirmatory test. The antibody is just your body’s response to the virus — you do not know if you still have the virus in your blood. Of people who are infected, 15-25 percent may fight off the virus on their own. They may no longer have the virus in their blood.
There are further laboratory tests that will look for the virus in your blood. You will need to go to a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant for them to order the confirmatory test.
Second, if you are positive for the HCV antibody, whether or not you get the confirmatory test, you should get vaccinated against other viruses that could hurt your liver. This includes the hepatitis B virus vaccine and the hepatitis A virus vaccine. You also will need to avoid drinking alcohol and avoid pharmaceutical medications and herbal medications that may have side effects that could hurt your liver.
Third, you need to be careful that people around you do not get infected from your blood.
Tell me more about hepatitis C in Thurston County
Between 2013 and 2015, Thurston County Public Health had reports of 674 individuals ages 50 to 70 years of age (born between 1945 and 1965) who tested positive for hepatitis C antibody. In that same time, the agency had reports of 1,090 total individuals, across all age groups, who tested positive for hepatitis C.
We believe that the 674 adults between the ages of 50 and 70 who reported positive antibody tests represent only 30 percent of the actual number of adults in this age range who likely have the disease. Again, this means that all people in this age group should be screened for the hepatitis C virus antibody.
Why should I care if I’m affected?
It usually takes six to seven weeks after exposure to the hepatitis C virus before any symptoms occur. However, many people with the hepatitis C virus do not look or feel sick at all. Even if an infected person has no symptoms, they still can spread the virus to others. Many people with chronic hepatitis C have no symptoms for many years, until their liver is damaged.
Chronic hepatitis C is a serious disease that can result in long-term health problems, including liver malfunction, liver failure, liver cancer or even death. It is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer, and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States.
Every year in the United States, approximately 15,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver disease. CDC estimates that of every 100 people infected with the hepatitis C virus, about 75 to 85 people will develop chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Of every 100 people with chronic hepatitis C, 60 to 70 people will go on to develop chronic liver disease; five to 20 people will go on to develop cirrhosis over 20 to 30 years; and one to five people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is treatable
In late 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved two new drugs to treat hepatitis C infection. This is yet one more reason why it is important for people at risk of HCV infection to know their status. If you find you are positive, learn how to avoid transmitting the disease to others and seek treatment for yourself.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.