Ask your health care provider whether you should be tested for hepatitis C, a potentially fatal infectious disease of the liver. Given recent advances, getting tested means being one step closer to the day when you too can say, “I’m cured,” writes Dr. Navin Vij.
As a physician, I have often found myself struggling with the concept of why some things happen to certain patients and not to others. When trying to find answers to such questions, I have often turned to the words of my mother: “Everything happens for a reason. The challenge in good and bad is to find out why.” Anyone who has been a patient has struggled with this idea.
My own struggle dates back to 2009, when I was in the first year of my medical residency training as a physician. While performing a procedure on a patient in the hospital, I was stuck by a needle. Despite my initial reluctance, I went to our employee health services as a routine precaution. A few days later, I received a phone call telling me, “You have hepatitis C.”
My world stopped. As an internal medicine and pediatric physician, I knew a lot about hepatitis C (HCV), a potentially life-threatening viral infection. Immediately, I asked myself, how could this be? Do I have liver damage? Do I have cirrhosis? Do I need a liver transplant? Am I going to die?
HCV is an infectious disease of the liver. Passed through direct contact with blood, HCV is often asymptomatic. Most patients live for years without developing any symptoms, while the virus is silently causing inflammation and damaging the liver. Over time, those infected can develop cirrhosis, complete liver failure or liver cancer. In the United States, HCV-related liver failure remains the leading indication for liver transplants.
Over the next several months, I would learn that my own experience with HCV dated back to the summer of 1983, when I was born prematurely. I spent several months in the neonatal intensive care unit, receiving various treatments, including blood transfusions. This was in the era before the blood supply was routinely screened for HCV, which started to occur regularly in the 1990s. When I received that phone call informing me of my diagnosis, I had been living with hepatitis C for more than 26 years.
After meeting with a liver specialist, I decided to undergo treatment. Not long after my birthday in June 2010, I began my treatment journey with one of the older forms of therapy: four pills of one medication daily and a self-injection of another once weekly. It was rough. I lost weight, had a rash and felt delirious and depressed at times. At one point, my white blood cell count fell so low that my HCV therapy had to be adjusted. However, despite the side effects, I got through it and was fortunate to learn in the summer of 2011 that I was cured.
An estimated 3 million to 4 million people are living in the United States with HCV, and approximately one-half to two-thirds are not aware that they are infected. In 2012, the Department of Public Health in Cleveland reported that nearly 440 cases of chronic HCV were diagnosed that year, representing an incidence of 34 for every 100,000 people. Hepatitis C is a very real problem in northern Ohio, and yet it is one we can do something about.
When I think back to my mom’s words and about my own experience with HCV, I realize that getting stuck with a needle happened for a reason. It meant that I was lucky to be diagnosed with HCV, which I had silently carried for nearly three decades. I was lucky to have access to treatments and the support to get through it. And I was lucky to be cured.
Over the last decade, and in particular the last four years, new therapies have emerged that have completely revolutionized the treatment of chronic HCV. Patients are now being cured at rates of 95 percent, in a shorter time period and with fewer side effects than I endured. Ask your doctor, nurse practitioner or other health care provider whether you should be tested. Because getting tested means being one step closer to treatment and to the day when you too can say, “I’m cured.”
Dr. Navin Vij is a hospitalist in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Seidman Cancer Center at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the American Liver Association’s Heartland Division.