This morning I attended University Hospitals Primary Care Institute’s second annual Wellness Symposium. We had great talks on new guidelines for managing high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, atrial fibrillation and quite a few other problems. The one I want to talk about today though is the amazing advances in treating hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver. It’s estimated that about 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C infection. 75% of patients with hepatitis C do not know they have it. Hepatitis C kills more people per year than HIV, and has done since 2006, but there is not nearly the same urgency or awareness of testing for hepatitis C as there is for HIV.
This is curious, because hepatitis C is transmitted exactly the same way as HIV, but is much easier to catch than HIV. Far and away the most common cause of hepatitis C infection is intravenous drug abuse, which is a huge concern with the current epidemic of heroin addiction.
Other ways to catch hepatitis C include blood transfusions and the medical use of blood products, from infected mother to baby, and through unprotected sex (although the risk is low particularly for monogamous heterosexual couples). It also can be transmitted in the medical field through needle-stick injuries and other exposures to infected blood and bodily fluids.
About 10% of people with hepatitis C have no idea where they got it. Scary.
Current recommendations are to offer screening to anyone who has one or more risk factors for infection, and to screen everyone who was born between 1945 and 1965. This is because the baby boomers account for 70-80% of patients with hepatitis C. (This may change with the IV drug abuse epidemic we’re currently having.)
Why do we care about hepatitis C? Hepatitis C is the #1 cause of liver transplant in the United States. It is also the leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer). And as I mentioned above, it now kills more people per year than HIV.
What happens if you have hepatitis C? Everyone knows viral infections can’t be cured, right? Actually, that isn’t true. Hepatitis C is nearly 100% curable with current medications, and new medications expected to be released soon will push the cure rate even higher with fewer side effects.
What does this mean for you? If you were born between 1945 and 1965, have EVER abused intravenous drugs, have ever traded sex for drugs or money, have a household contact with hepatitis C or are concerned about your personal risk, PLEASE talk to your doctor and get checked. The screening test is covered by insurance plans.
Talk to friends and family members. If you love someone who has risk factors or was born between 1945 and 1965, make sure they get screened. Hepatitis C can kill them, and it’s curable if it’s diagnosed before permanent damage is done to the liver.
Hepatitis C is estimated to affect 3.5 million Americans. It often has no symptoms until the liver begins to fail or cancer develops. 75% of Americans with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. It is curable, if we find it.
QUESTION: Has your doctor ever asked you about your risk factors for hepatitis C?