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What’s that Disease? Hepatitis C


After September 11th, Americans, in the spirit of helping out in one of the few ways they could, rushed to donate blood for survivors. Many of them got some startling news: they were infected with the Hepatitis C virus. People can harbor the virus for years without having any symptoms at all.

What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus.

Is hepatitis C common in the U.S.?
More than 4 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C. That’s five times more than cases of HIV.

How does a person become infected with the virus?
The most common way people become infected is through blood-to-blood transmission. Blood transfusions and organ transplants that occurred before 1992 and injecting drugs by needle are the most common modes. It’s possible to get the virus from infected needles at a tattoo parlor as well. Least common modes of transmission are through sexual contact and mother-to-baby contact.

What are the symptoms?
In fact, 80 percent of people who currently have the virus do not have symptoms. Symptoms tend to develop over a period of many years, and are an indication that the condition is reaching the advanced stage. Antibodies to the virus can be detected early, before liver damage occurs. Symptoms of hepatitis C include:

  • Pain in the abdomen or side
  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin)
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea

What are the consequences of hepatitis C?
These vary greatly from person to person. Eventually, 70 to 85 percent of people with the hepatitis C virus develop chronic liver disease and chronic infection. The hepatitis C virus is the leading indication for liver transplant. Over a period of 20 to 30 years, 15 percent of infected people are likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver, which causes permanent damage to liver cells.

What is the function of the liver?
The liver is a vital organ. It serves as a kind of filter, helping your body process and excrete substances that otherwise would be toxic, including alcohol. It helps digest food, stores iron, stores energy until you need it, manufactures proteins, and helps blood to form clots.

What should people do if they find out they are infected with hepatitis C?
First, you should see your doctor to discuss ways to manage this condition. Second, stop drinking alcohol, because alcohol aggravates the liver. If liver damage is already present, you should have a vaccine for hepatitis A.

What is the treatment?
Most people currently receiving treatment for hepatitis C would have a combination of two antiviral drugs, interferon and ribavirin, or interferon alone. The regimen is difficult for most people. It can last for as long as 42 weeks, and cause severe flu-like symptoms.

Deciding to undergo treatment is difficult, because many people with hepatitis C feel fine. But the cure rate is 50 to 60 percent. And even if the first round of treatment doesn’t provide a cure, a second round might.

Treatment and management of hepatitis C is complex, and it’s essential for anyone with the condition to be under regular medical care.

Is there a vaccine?
No. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

What’s the best way to prevent hepatitis C?
Avoid taking drugs by needle. Understand that getting a tattoo puts you at risk. Getting hepatitis C through sexual contact is rare, so talk with your doctor about this particular mode of transmission.

The blood supply has become extremely safe, so getting hepatitis C from a blood transfusion is extremely unlikely.

For more information about Hepatitis C, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Liver Foundation; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The Lupus Foundation of America; The New York Times, 25 February 2002, 14 May 2002
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