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Hepatitis C – a leading cause of liver disease and liver cancer – is considered a silent killer because it progresses without any indications of illness. Unlike other types of hepatitis, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. An estimated 3.9 million U.S. residents have the infection.

Recovery from this infection, which is caused by a blood borne virus discovered in 1989, is rare; about 55 to 80 percent of infected persons become chronic carriers of the virus. Approximately 20 percent of people infected with hepatitis C virus will become sick with jaundice or other symptoms of hepatitis. Seventy percent of these individuals may go on to develop chronic liver disease.

Chronic liver disease due to hepatitis C causes between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths and is the leading indication for liver transplantation each year in the United States. By the year 2010, the number of deaths from hepatitis C is expected to rise to 38,000 each year.

What Causes Hepatitis C?

Transmission of hepatitis C occurs primarily from contact with infected blood, but can also occur from sexual contact or from an infected mother to her baby. Blood transfusions prior to 1992 and the use of shared needles are other significant causes of the spread of hepatitis C.

Who is at Risk for Hepatitis C?

Since patients with liver disease typically have no symptoms, it is important for physicians to identify patients who are at high risk. This often means an uncomfortable conversation about prior intravenous or intranasal drug use, or risky sexual practices in addition to testing those patients who are considered baby boomers. In reviewing the epidemiologic data, there is a spike in the number of patients diagnosed with hepatitis C with birth years between 1950 and 1960.

Other populations who may be at risk for contracting hepatitis C:
  • children born to mothers who are infected with the virus
  • persons who have a blood-clotting disorder such as hemophilia and received clotting factors before 1987
  • persons who require dialysis for kidney failure
  • persons who may participate in high-risk activities such as intravenous (IV) drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact
  • individuals who received a blood transfusion before 1992

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Persons who are at risk should be checked regularly for hepatitis C. Persons who have hepatitis C should be monitored closely for signs of chronic hepatitis and liver failure.

Baby Boomers and Hepatitis C

It is recommended that all adults born between 1945 and 1965 – the baby boom generation – undergo a one-time screening for the hepatitis C virus.

People in this age group account for three-quarters of all hepatitis C cases in the United States. The high incidence of undiagnosed hepatitis C in baby boomers can be attributed to generational activities including sex and drugs. Also, the virus was not identified until 1989; so many people were passing it around without knowing it.

Early detection is critical because by the time symptoms appear, the liver could already be severely damaged.  Physicians are becoming more proactive in testing patients for hepatitis C whether the patient has symptoms or not.

What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

While many people do not experience symptoms until their condition is advanced, the following are the most common symptoms for hepatitis C:

  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting
  • vague stomach pain
  • jaundice
  • fever
  • dark yellow urine
  • light-colored stools
  • muscle and joint pain

Symptoms may occur from two weeks to six months after exposure. The symptoms of hepatitis C may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for hepatitis C may include the following:

  • blood tests
  • liver biopsy
  • for people who have had a positive result, a follow-up test – called an RNA test – can determine if they are still infected so they can receive necessary care and treatment

The reasons for early diagnosis are obvious.  It identifies the disease to prevent patients from potentially transmitting the virus to another person, the patients can be counseled on stopping concomitant alcohol use as that can hasten disease progression, and patients can be evaluated for treatment.

Treatment for Hepatitis C

Specific treatment for hepatitis C will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Identifying those who are currently infected is important because new effective treatments can cure the infection better than ever before, as well as eliminate the risk of transmission to others.

At the present time, a vaccine is not available for the prevention of hepatitis C. Treatment may include biological therapy with interferon.