Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infection which can cause liver disease in infected people. It is estimated that anywhere from three to six million people in the US, and 170 million people worldwide are carriers of the virus.
The virus was not discovered until 1989, and unfortunately, most carriers are still unaware that they have the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Most people who contract HCV carry it for the rest of their lives. People with liver damage due to hepatitis C may develop cirrhosis of the liver and/or liver failure, which could take years to develop.
Are You at Risk?
HCV is primarily spread through contact with infected blood. You may be at increased risk for HCV if you have had:
- Injected illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
- A blood transfusion before 1992
- Blood-clotting products before 1987
- Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
- Tattoos or body piercings
- Sex with partners who have other sexually transmitted diseases
- An injury due to a needle stick
HCV can also spread through:
- An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
- Sharing a straw when inhaling drugs, such as cocaine, with someone infected by HCV
- Receiving a transfusion of HCV-contaminated blood
HCV cannot be transmitted through:
- Unbroken skin
- Hugging or kissing
- Sneezing or coughing
- Sharing food
- Eating utensils or glasses
Diagnosing Hepatitis C
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, it is important to take precautions to protect your liver and others from the virus.
A blood test or a saliva test can determine if someone has been infected with HCV. If the test result is positive, additional tests will be necessary to confirm the diagnosis, identify the type of HCV, and determine the proper course of treatment.
Hepatitis C Treatment Options
HCV is treated with the following medicines:
- Interferon, given by injection
- Ribavirin, given orally
- Combination of interferon and ribavirin
These medicines have limited success rates and may cause difficult side effects. Even with treatment, hepatitis C may not clear up within six months. Over a long period of time, chronic HCV can cause serious liver damage, and in rare cases a liver transplant may be necessary.
Fortunately, newer therapies are available for the treatment of HCV. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved two direct-acting antiviral agents to treat adult patients with chronic HCV.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be screened for HCV because 79 percent of all Americans with HCV were born in that time range.
The team of specialists at the UPMC Center for Liver Diseases is at the forefront of the clinical trials of these therapies.
For more information, contact the UPMC Center for Liver Diseases at 1-800-447-1651.