What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes inflammation of the liver. A national survey found that 1.8 percent of Americans, about 3.9 million, have been infected with HCV. About 2.7 million are chronically infected and many show no signs or symptoms. Hepatitis C is a slow-progressing disease that may take 10-40 years to cause serious liver damage in some people.

Who Is At Risk? Since about four million Americans are infected with HCV and most don’t know it, you should have a blood test for Hepatitis C – whether you feel sick or not. About one in ten people infected with HCV have had no identifiable exposure to the disease.

How Does It Spread? Injection drug use is the primary risk factor for HCV infection; it accounts for about 60 percent of all new cases of Hepatitis C and is also a major risk factor for the Hepatitis B virus. Among frequent drug users, 50-80 percent are infected within the first 12 months of beginning injecting. Straws shared in snorting drugs are also a potential source of infection.

HCV is not spread through kissing or casual contact. In relationships where there is one steady partner, sexual transmission is low (under five percent). Transmission is estimated to be about 15 percent among those who have multiple sex partners or where there is a history of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Hepatitis C virus is found mainly in blood; it may be transmitted by using razors, needles, toothbrushes, nail files, a barber’s scissors, tattooing equipment, body piercing or acupuncture needles if these items are contaminated by blood of an infected person. Healthcare workers have a two percent risk of acquiring HCV after a needle stick contaminated with HCV-positive blood.

Symptoms: Most people who are infected with the HCV do not have symptoms and are leading normal lives. If symptoms are present, they may be very mild and flu-like: nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, fever, headaches, and abdominal pain.

Diagnosis: Test for HCV antibodies: HCV infection can be determined by a simple and specific blood test that detects antibodies against HCV. The current enzyme immunoassay test (EIA) that detects anti-HCV has a sensitivity of about 95 percent in chronic HCV. HCV infection may be identified by anti-HCV testing in approximately 80 percent of people as early as five weeks after exposure. This test is not a part of a routine physical examination, and people must ask their doctor for a Hepatitis C antibody test.

Test liver enzyme levels: If you may already have chronic infection, your doctor will test the levels of two liver enzymes: alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotrasferase (AST). Both are released when liver cells are injured or die. Elevated ALT and AST levels may appear and disappear throughout the course of the HCV infection. If the liver enzyme levels are normal with chronic HCV, they should be re-checked several times over a 6 – 12 month period. If the liver enzyme levels remain normal, your doctor may check them less frequently, such as once per year.

Treating HCV: There are three types of interferon, plus a combination of interferon and ribavirin, used to treat Hepatitis C. Blood tests and liver biopsy findings may determine the need for treatment. Interferon must be given by injection, and may have a number of side effects, including flu-like symptoms: headaches, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and thinning of hair. Ribavirin, given by mouth, can have additional side effects including depression, severe anemia and especially birth defects. Ribavirin may also interfere with the production of red blood cells and platelets by depressing bone marrow. Patients should be monitored frequently.

Currently, almost half of all liver transplants in the U.S. are performed for end-stage Hepatitis C. However, re-infection of the transplanted liver by the virus usually occurs and may require a second transplant.

The above information was found at the Hepatitis Foundation International website at www.hepfi.org. For more information you can also contact their toll-free number: (800) 891-0707.

Local Support Group: A local support group meets in the Twin Cities: LiverHope Support Group can be reached at Voicemail: (763) 780-0108, Helen Clark (952) 933-0932, helen@liverhope.com Or Pat Buchanan (763) 566-3839, pat@liverhope.com

LIVERHOPE meetings are: 7:00 – 9:00 PM, 2nd and 4th Tuesdays unless otherwise noted. Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church Choir Room (street level) or Youth Room (basement) 3920 North Victoria Street, Shoreview, MN.