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Hepatitis C: Dangerous Silence


Updated October 16, 2009

Dr. C. Everett Koop estimates that over 200 million people worldwide are infected with HCV--"making it one of the greatest public health threats faced in this century, and perhaps one of the greatest threats to be faced in the next century." Hepatitis C will soon kill more people each year than AIDS. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people die annually as a result of HCV--a number which is expected to triple over the next two decades.

In August 1999, "The New England Journal of Medicine" reported that almost five million people in the United States are infected with Hepatitis C (HCV). Of these, approximately 2.7 million people are chronically infected, and more than two million more people may be infected with this potentially fatal virus and be unaware that they are infected. The largest group affected by this virus are those between 30 and 49 years old who comprise 65 percent of the people infected with HCV.

People exposed to hepatitis C have an 85 percent chance of developing the chronic form of this virus and more than a quarter of those patients will die of cirrhosis or liver cancer. It's estimated that only five percent of those infected know they have the virus and that less than two percent of those patients have received treatment.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is often called a "hidden disease" or "silent epidemic" because those infected with HCV are often unaware for 10-30 years after exposure. The symptoms of HCV are easy to misdiagnose and often resemble the flu or a variety of other conditions. When symptoms are present they can include extreme fatique, nausea, liver pain, and depression.

Risk Factors for Hepatitis C

  • Those who received blood transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992.
  • Women face unique risks, particularly women who underwent C-section delivery prior to 1992.
  • Intravenous drug use (even once), and possibly intranasal use of cocaine or other drugs.
  • Long-term hemodialysis patients.
  • Those who received clotting factor prior to 1987.
  • Sharing razors, toothbrushes, or other products that could contain blood with an infected person.
  • If your mother was infected at the time of your birth.
  • Healthcare workers exposed to needle sticks, sharps, or mucosal exposure to HCV-positive blood.
  • Unprotected sex with multiple partners, or history of STDs.
  • Unsanitary tattooing or body piercing.

Testing and Diagnosis

Earlier this year, the FDA approved the first home test for hepatitis C. The kit is called the Hepatitis C Check and is manufactured by the Home Access Health Company. The kit includes instructions for use, a personal identification number, a lancet for obtaining a drop of blood, filter paper, and a mailer. The blood sample is collected on the filter paper and sent to the laboratory for testing. The lab uses a FDA-licensed test for antibodies to HCV and comfirms any positive samples with a different FDA-licensed test for antibiodies to HCV. The results are available to the consumer withing 4-10 business days after receipt and can be obtained by phone from either an automated phone system or a healthcare counselor.

Home Access Health also provides a telemedicine service that offers education and counseling about HCV, and referal to a physician. Those who test positive will need to see a physician for further evaluation and to determine whether the infection is currently active.

Treatment of Hepatitis C

The good news is that there are several treatments for HCV including Rebetron® which was approved late last year by the FDA for use in previously untreated patients. This treatment is a combination therapy which consists of Intron A and Rebetol capsules. Your physician will decide whether this treatment or another therapy is best for you.

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