Recent media attention to the hepatitis C epidemic may have given Americans a false sense of security that the disease is one of intravenous drug users and sexually promiscuous people only, according to Stephen P. Longello, Hepatitis C Foundation.
"IV drug use accounts for only about 40 percent and sexual transmission is less than 1 percent of cases of chronic hepatitis C, while the remaining cases come from a wide variety of factors," Longello said.
The hepatitis C virus (Hepatitis C Virus) can also be transmitted via tattooing, body piercing, oral surgery, dialysis, acupuncture, vaccinations, mother to child (very rare), tainted blood products, and to hemophiliacs born prior to 1990, Longello said. Shared household items such as razors and toothbrushes may also play a role in transmitting Hepatitis C Virus. In a large percentage of cases, the means of transmission is unknown.
Blood transfusion before 1990 may account for as many as 300,000 Americans becoming infected with Hepatitis C Virus, according to a congressional committee. The committee has called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a plan to notify those transfusion patients who may be at risk for hepatitis C.
"We at the Hepatitis C Foundation have found, based on the overwhelming number of inquiries recently, Americans are suffering from a lack of information and understanding of hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is not just a disease of intravenous drug users, it is a disease of mankind. There are many other modes of transmission which need to be communicated and if one feels that they may have been exposed to the disease, they should be tested and seek treatment if appropriate," Longello said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 4 million to 4.5 million Americans suffer from chronic hepatitis C. The infection contributes to the deaths of more than 12,000 Americans every year and is a principal cause of chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. American Liver Foundation researchers have said that liver failure due to hepatitis C infection is the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
"People in certain occupations who are exposed to blood or blood products are also at a higher risk for hepatitis C," said Longello, "including people who have served in the Armed Forces, doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, workers in science and clinical labs, health care institution and prison workers, and police officers."
Even though acute hepatitis C, at first, is largely asymptomatic, medical experts say that a flu-like illness is often mentioned by patients who are later diagnosed with the disease. Extreme fatigue, depression, fever, mood changes, and weakness are the main complaints of patients with chronic hepatitis C.
About nine out of 10 people who contract an acute infection of Hepatitis C Virus will go on to develop chronic hepatitis. Of those who eventually develop chronic hepatitis C, a large number will develop cirrhosis, portal hypertension, and liver failure, some in as few as 10 years, and may require a liver transplant.
Hepatitis C is a silent killer because both the acute and chronic phases of the disease usually produce no specific symptoms. The acute phase is identified only if there is a definite recent risk factor such as a needle stick, surgery, or a tattoo. The chronic form can persist for decades without any outward signs or symptoms of the disease, while some of the patients are developing irreversible cirrhosis and possibly liver cancer.
"People's lives, marriages, and financial situations suffer greatly due to hepatitis C. It is an epidemic which affects its host mentally, physically, and emotionally. There is no cure or vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are treatments available. The only approved treatment is alpha interferon. About 15 percent of patients who take alpha interferon will go into remission. We at the Hepatitis C Foundation encourage Americans to get tested if they feel they are at risk," said Longello.
Keith Key, News Editor