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Hepatitis C Virus

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Now let’s take a closer look at Hepatitis C. The Hepatitis C Virus (otherwise known as HCV) reproduces in the liver causing inflammation and possibly cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer much like the Hepatitis B virus does. However, HCV is a different virus with its own traits. A person may be infected and have no signs or symptoms, and they can live with the virus for decades without knowing it while the virus does damage to their liver. About 80% of the people exposed develop a chronic infection. And only about 20% are actually able to clear the virus by naturally building immunity. There are about 3.2 million people in the US infected with HCV with about 17,000 new cases yearly. Deaths from chronic disease each year total approximately 12,000. Symptoms are not reliable and they’re not a great way to detect HCV. You must have a proper test to be sure. Some of the symptoms include yellow or jaundiced skin, yellowing of the eyes, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, dark urine, joint pain, abdominal discomfort, sometimes severe, fever, and clay colored stools. Unlike HIV or HBV, Hepatitis C is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person through needles. Hepatitis C is most commonly spread by: Tattoos or piercings performed with unsterilized equipment. The sharing needles for injecting drug use (which is currently the most common means of HCV transmission in the United States). Receipt of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now are rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992). Birth to an Hepatitis C infected mother. Needlestick injuries in health care settings, although this is a low percentage of the HCV infection. HCV can also be spread less frequently through sexual intercourse with an HCV-infected person or sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, such as razors or a toothbrush. HIV infected people face a much greater risk of infection of Hepatitis C. There’s no evidence of Hepatitis C virus transmission from food handlers, teachers, or other service providers in the absence of actual blood-to-blood contact. Like HIV and Hepatitis B, it’s not spread by casual contact like handshaking, hugging, doorknobs, using the same equipment, or public items like toilets and water fountains. Traditionally, there has been no cure for Hepatitis C virus. However, in recent years new drugs have made big improvements in the way Hepatitis C virus is treated. Some studies have had up to 90% of the infected people cured by taking a combination of new drugs approved by the FDA. The downside is that these drugs are very expensive, and they cost tens of thousands of dollars for the required treatment. There is still no vaccine available for HCV.

In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the Hepatitis C virus, also known as HCV, including signs and symptoms, ways to protect yourself, and some statistics for Hepatitis C infection in the U.S.

You're going to notice numerous similarities with the Hepatitis B virus. However, there will also be some significant and crucial differences to make note of.

Much like the Hepatitis B virus, Hepatitis C can exhibit very mild conditions with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. It's not unusual for someone infected with Hepatitis C to live for decades with the disease and not know it, all the while the virus is slowly destroying their liver.

The Hepatitis C virus reproduces in the liver, which causes inflammation. This in turn can also lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and liver failure.

Some people who are exposed to Hepatitis C can fight the infection and rid it from the body. While others become chronically infected.

You may recall that this is where we gave you some good news in the last lesson, as around 90 percent of those infected (adults and older children) with the Hepatitis B virus will be able to fight the virus and expel it from their bodies within a few months and subsequently develop an immunity to it. While the other 10 percent of people who contract Hepatitis B will become chronic.

The problem is that with Hepatitis C, those numbers are practically inverted, as around 80 percent of those exposed develop a chronic infection, while the other 20 percent will clear the virus from their systems and develop and natural immunity to it.

How Hepatitis C is Contracted and Spread

Pro Tip #1: Hepatitis C is spread a little differently compared to Hepatitis B and HIV. While the latter two viruses are mainly spread through sexual contact with an infected person, Hepatitis C is spread mostly through blood, including sharing needles with an infected person (mostly due to injected drug use) and through getting tattoos and piercings with unsterilized equipment.

Less common ways of contracting Hepatitis C in the U.S. include receiving blood, blood products, or organs that have been infected with the Hepatitis C virus. However, these instances are much less common since blood screening became available in 1992.

Also, like both HIV and Hepatitis B, the infection can be passed from mother to unborn (or just-born) baby. And in healthcare settings, it can also be passed on through needle stick injuries. It's worth noting that these are both rare, as is spreading the disease through sexual intercourse.

It should be noted that personal items that are contaminated with infected blood and then shared with others also present a risk – items like razors and toothbrushes, for example.

Pro Tip #2: People who are infected with HIV face a much greater risk of also contracting Hepatitis C.

Also, like both Hepatitis B and HIV, Hepatitis C cannot be spread through casual contact, such as hugging, handshaking, or coming into contact with pubic items like doorknobs, water fountains, and toilets. And there is no evidence of virus transmission from food handlers, teachers, or other service providers in the absence of blood to blood contact.

Hepatitis C Statistics in the U.S.

  • It is estimated that around 3.2 million people in the U.S. have a chronic Hepatitis C infection
  • 17,000 people each year become infected with the Hepatitis C virus
  • 12,000 people each year die from liver complications caused by Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C Signs and Symptoms

Much like with HIV and Hepatitis B, signs and symptoms for Hepatitis C are unreliable and may or may not be present. And why proper testing for all the above is the only sure-fire way to know if an infection is present.

Hepatitis C symptoms (which mirror those of Hepatitis B) include, but are not limited to:

  • Yellow skin, known as jaundice
  • Yellowing eyes
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Dark urine
  • Joint pain
  • Clay colored stools
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Fever

Hepatitis C Treatment

Unfortunately, there is neither a Hepatitis C vaccine or a known cure. There are, however, new drugs that have come on the market that studies have shown can provide big improvements to those in need of Hepatitis C treatment.

In some studies, those infected with the Hepatitis C virus who took one or more new drugs approved by the FDA showed up to a 90 percent success rate in eliminating the disease.

The downside is the expense. Treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, making them financially available to only a select few who can afford them.

A Word About Bloodborne Pathogens – Signs and Transmission

Let's quickly recap the symptoms of the diseases covered in this section (Hepatitis B, C, and HIV) along with the modes of transmission for each. It may help to see the side-by-side comparisons for the purpose of retaining the information.

HIV

Symptoms: May or may not be present in the early stages. Late-contact stage symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, skin rashes, night sweats, loss of appetite, swollen lymph glands, significant weight loss, white spots in the mouth or vaginal discharge (signs of yeast infection), and memory or movement problems.

Contraction: HIV is spread through both direct and possibly indirect contact with blood, semen, and vaginal fluid.

Hepatitis B

Symptoms: Jaundice, fever, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and joint pain

Contraction: Hepatitis B is spread through both direct and indirect contact with blood and semen.

Hepatitis C

Symptoms: Jaundice, fever, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and joint pain

Contraction: Hepatitis C is spread through both direct and indirect contact with blood and semen.