Two people I know, baby boomers with sharply differing backgrounds and stories, have hepatitis C. One contracted the liver-destroying virus through a blood transfusion she received prior to 1992. That year, more careful screening of blood donations began. In a particularly cruel twist, the transfusion was part of her cancer treatment at the time. Now cancer-free, she must manage the chronic hepatitis C infection.
In the second person, hepatitis C is an unwelcome remnant of a wild, hell-raising period in his life when he injected drugs. He got clean years before a blood test showed abnormal liver function. He went through rigorous treatment with interferon and ribavirin, and his health is stable now.
A third boomer I know began to fret when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended last week that everyone born between 1945 and 1966 have a one-time blood test to detect the presence of the hepatitis C virus. The distant memory of a motorcycle crash as a teenager in the 70s suddenly seemed fresh because he had a blood transfusion while hospitalized for those injuries. There’s no way to predict whether that transfused blood contained hepatitis C, but federal health recommendations now advise finding out.
Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after exposure to the virus, which is spread through infected blood, sharing needles, razors, or toothbrushes or through sexual contact - although sexual transmission is less common. Healthcare workers can get hepatitis C through needle stick injuries.
One of the leading causes of liver disease, hepatitis C becomes chronic when the virus remains in your body. It can cause serious liver damage, including cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer. Most people—75 to 85 percent—who develop acute hepatitis C go on to develop the chronic form of the infection. In roughly 15 to 25 percent of acute hepatitis C cases, the person’s body clears the infection without treatment, but scientists do not yet understand how.
Most people who have hepatitis C do not know they are infected, according to the CDC. The infection often produces no symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include tiredness, itchy skin, dark urine, muscle soreness, nausea, loss of appetite, stomach pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
To find out if you have hepatitis C, you give a blood sample. First, the blood is tested to detect the presence of hepatitis C antibodies. If the antibodies are present, this means you are or were once infected with the hepatitis C virus. A second test confirms hepatitis C by detecting the presence of hepatitis C RNA in your blood.
It’s possible to have a positive antibody test and a negative RNA test. This indicates that you are among those who have cleared the virus from your body. A positive antibody test and a positive RNA test reveals that you have a hepatitis C infection now. A liver biopsy may be required to assess the level of damage.
You can see your doctor for a hepatitis C test. Walk-in testing is available from the Orange County Health Care Agency at the Testing and Treatment Clinic at 1725 W. 17th Street in Santa Ana. Call 714-834-8787 for more information.
There is no treatment for an acute hepatitis C infection other than rest. Chronic hepatitis C may be treated with a combination of interferon, a protein that modulates the body’s response to foreign substances, and ribavirin, an antiviral drug. In people with certain types of hepatitis C, the drugs boceprevir or telaprevir may also be prescribed along with interferon and ribavirin.
For more information about hepatitis C, including local support groups for those living with the infection, contact The American Liver Foundation Greater Los Angeles Division.