health alert: hepatitis c

Hepatitis C, a primary liver infection, kills more people in the United States than any other infectious disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet testing for the presence of infection has remained woefully low, particularly among one of the country’s most vulnerable groups – Baby Boomers: those born between 1945 and 1965. Nearly 20,000 Americans reportedly died from hepatitis C-related disorders in 2015, and most of them were age 55 or older.

Lack of patient and physician awareness of the need to screen for the virus, along with the disease’s “unapparent symptoms” are among reasons cited for lagging screening rates, even though the United States Preventive Services Task Force, in 2013, advised testing of all baby boomers for underlying infection.

A July 2017 report in American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicates that 80 percent of the 3.5 million Americans who have chronic hepatitis C infection are baby boomers, and most of them are unaware they have the virus. Unfortunately, hepatitis C screening rates increased only slightly – from 12.3 to 13.8 percent — in the two years following the national task force recommendations.

Baby boomers are reportedly five times more likely to have been exposed to the virus, because they lived at a time when blood transfusion, injection procedures, and screening processes were not as advanced as they are today. To complicate matters, the hepatitis C virus was not clearly “discovered” and identified until 1989.

About Hepatitis C
Like any other type of hepatitis, infection with hepatitis C results in liver inflammation. Although the infection begins as an acute disease, from which some people may recover, the majority of patients become chronically infected. In fact, the virus is usually present for years in a patient without causing symptoms. The disease is linked to the development of life threatening disorders, including: cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and liver cancer. Recent studies also have reported an association between the hepatitis C virus infection and an increase in miscarriages, premature ovarian deterioration, low birth-weight babies and cases of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, as well as Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Contaminated blood is the primary source for transmission of the virus. Today’s blood-screening practices make risk of infection through blood transfusion very low. However, the disease can be spread through: the sharing of personal grooming items like nail and cuticle clippers and razors, including those used by salons and barbershops; improper sterilization and reuse of equipment for tattoos and piercings; long-term dialysis treatment; and accidental needle sticks among health care workers. The practice of sharing needles among intravenous drug abusers is also a source of infection, and children born to mothers with hepatitis C can harbor the virus.

Nationwide Testing Needed
Fortunately, the virus can be detected by a one-time blood test, and effectively treated with a class of drugs known as direct-acting antivirals (DAAs). A study in a July 2017 edition of Lancet indicates that scientists also may be on track for developing a vaccine to prevent new hepatitis C infections. Meanwhile, a proposed nationwide effort to test for hepatitis C and implement widespread prevention and treatment services could eventually prove successful in eliminating the infection almost entirely, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tips to Protect You and Others
To protect you and your family, ask your doctor about getting a hepatitis C blood test, especially if you are from the Baby Boomer generation.
Should you discover you have the infection, prevent its spread:

  • Keep cuts and blisters covered.
  • Thoroughly wash hands, as well as any objects that may have your blood on it.
  • Don’t donate blood.
  • Avoid sharing your personal grooming and cleaning items like toothbrushes and razors.
  • Don’t consume alcohol. Alcohol increases risk of liver cancer in patients infected by hepatitis C.

If you don’t have hepatitis C, to avoid infection:

  • Do not use others’ grooming items.
  • Choose tattoo and piercing establishments that follow strict sanitary procedures.
  • If you’re engaging in sex, make it safe sex.
Louis Aurisicchio, M.D., FACG

Louis Aurisicchio, M.D., FACG

Dr. Louis N. Aurisicchio practices internal medicine at CareMount Medical. He is a board certified gastroenterologist and nutritionist. He graduated from Fordham University and obtained his medical education from the Universidad del Noreste in Mexico. After completing his residency in internal medicine Dr. Aurisicchio specialized in Gastroenterology & Clinical Nutrition at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center.
Louis Aurisicchio, M.D., FACG

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