What To Know: Hep C
If you watch TV or surf the web you’ve probably seen ads about hepatitis C (Hep C) and new drugs used to treat it. The older adults in the ads represent a group of people in the U.S.—Baby Boomers—identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as at-risk for chronic Hep C.
But what exactly is Hep C? How do you get it? What tests and treatments are available?
Types of Hepatitis
The term hepatitis simply refers to liver inflammation. Viral hepatitis refers to a group of infectious diseases caused by distinct viruses and known as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. While all types affect the liver, each type spreads in a different way, affects different groups of people, and results in different outcomes.
Hepatitis A is spread through contaminated food or water and causes only acute disease. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with blood and other body fluids and can be both acute and chronic. Hepatitis D is passed through contact with infected blood but only occurs in people already infected with hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis E is mainly spread through contaminated drinking water and causes acute disease. There are vaccines available in the U.S. but they prevent only hepatitis A and B.
About Hep C
Hep C is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. It can cause acute and chronic infection. Some people clear the virus from their system on their own, but most (about 80 percent) develop chronic infection.
In the U.S., three in four people with chronic Hep C are Baby Boomers and about half the people who have it don’t know it. That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone born from 1945 to 1965 gets tested for Hep C.
Why Baby Boomers? There are several reasons this group may have been exposed: infection caused by medical equipment or procedures in the 1960s though 1980s before standard infection control practices were in place; contaminated blood and blood products received before 1992 when screening eliminated the virus from the nation’s blood supply; and sharing needles or drug paraphernalia in the past—even just one time.
Tragically, our country’s current opioid epidemic is creating a whole new group of non-Boomers who are chronically infected with Hep C through injection drug use.
Regardless of age, testing for hepatitis C is crucial because many people live for years with few or no symptoms of the disease. Over time though, Hep C can cause serious liver disease including cirrhosis. It’s also the leading cause of liver cancer and the number-one cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
Testing for hepatitis C is a simple blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test. This screening test looks for chemicals (antibodies) that the body’s immune system releases into the bloodstream in response to infection with hepatitis C virus. If this screening test is negative or non-reactive, the person does not have hepatitis C and no further testing is needed.
If the antibody test is positive or reactive, it may simply mean that at some point the person was exposed to the virus and developed antibodies. An additional viral load test, checking for viral RNA (HCV RNA test), is needed to diagnose chronic infection. If the preliminary test is positive, both tests are essential to determine Hep C status.
Now the Good News
Treatment is available that can cure over 90 percent of chronic hepatitis C infections. Today’s medications, called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), target specific steps in the Hep C virus life cycle to ultimately clear the body of the virus. So if you’re a Baby Boomer or otherwise at risk of having Hep C, ask your doctor about testing the next time you see one of those ads about Hep C.
For more information about Hep C, testing and treatment, contact your primary care provider, or visit CDC’s website at CDC.gov/Hepatitis.
Peggy McCall, RN BSN, has been a public health nurse with the Chester County Health Department for four years, specializing in infectious diseases including hepatitis, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and HIV. After completing her nursing education at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia and West Chester University, she practiced for many years in critical care and emergency nursing.
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