Important information about hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a serious disease that can cause severe damage to the liver and trigger cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Yet most people who have hepatitis C don’t know they are infected.
“It’s a silent disease,” said Minhhuyen T. Nguyen, MD, AGAF, a hepatologist and Director of Clinical Gastroenterology at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “The virus slips past the surveillance of our immune defenses. You might not know you have it for 20 or 30 years.”
Hepatitis C affects an estimated 3.9 million people in the U.S., and infection with this virus is an all too common yet preventable cause of liver cancer.
Here, Dr. Nguyen offered some need-to-know facts about hepatitis C and dispelled some common myths.
FACT: Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer.
Chronic infection with hepatitis B or C is a common cause of liver cancer. Although not all cases of Hepatitis C lead to cancer, your risk of getting cancer is 1 to 5 percent per year if you’ve had hepatitis C for more than 30 years and you develop cirrhosis of the liver, according to Dr. Nguyen.
FACT: Rates of hepatitis C are highest among baby boomers—people born from 1945 through 1965.
People in this generation are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. In fact, three out of every four people with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965. Transmission of the virus was at its peak in the 1960s through the 1980s when there was less known about hepatitis C. It is likely during those decades that most of this population became infected.
“There was no screening test for hepatitis C until 1990,” Dr. Nguyen noted, and the virus wasn’t completely eliminated from the U.S. blood supply until 1992 when screening donated blood for hepatitis C became widespread.
Still, many baby boomers don’t know how or when they acquired the virus.
MYTH: Most people infected with hepatitis C contracted the virus during unprotected sex.
In most cases hepatitis C is spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. Before the virus was screened from the nation’s blood supply, hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Today most people become infected by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs.
“Only about 1 to 2 percent are infected through unprotected sex,” Dr. Nguyen said.
MYTH: There is a vaccine for hepatitis C.
There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B. But there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. Similar to HIV, hepatitis C is an RNA virus, Dr. Nguyen said, and producing a vaccine for an RNA virus is difficult. Scientists are, however, working on developing a hepatitis C vaccine.
FACT: You can be cured of hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C isn’t the only virus that can cause cancer—there are several others. While there are effective treatments for all of the viruses, only hepatitis C can be cured with medications called direct-acting antivirals.
“We have about seven different kinds of them that can treat hepatitis C,” Dr. Nguyen said. “And the cure rate is in the upper 90th percentile, if you take the medicine correctly. The key is to have people screened for the virus and if positive, then treated. We can’t cure hepatitis C in patients who don’t seek treatment for it.”
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