(BPT) - After receiving blood transfusions in 1979 during the birth of her last child, Mary Lambert, a human resources professional and former teacher, thought her health ordeal was over. Little did she know that, due to those transfusions, she had become infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
In fact, Mary didn’t have any indication that she was suffering from chronic hepatitis C, a potentially life-threatening viral infection, until she tried to donate blood in 1993, nearly 15 years later. Mary didn’t experience any symptoms for more than a decade and was unaware that HCV was slowly damaging her liver, ultimately leading to liver scarring.
What is HCV?
Unfortunately, stories like Mary’s are not uncommon. HCV, the most prevalent chronic blood-borne infection in the United States, affects more than 3 million Americans and causes approximately 15,000 deaths each year.
HCV is the number one cause of liver failure and liver-related death and a major cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. HCV is also associated with a variety of other conditions, including diabetes, thyroid disease and kidney disease.
As in Mary’s case, HCV is often a “silent disease.” However, when symptoms occur, they can include fatigue, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. The good news, however, is HCV can be cured – meaning the virus is undetectable in the blood when checked three months or more after completing treatment.
Who does HCV affect?
Baby Boomers, or people born between 1945 and 1965, are disproportionately affected by HCV, accounting for three out of four people with the virus. Among other ways, HCV can be spread via contaminated needles (from tattoos, needle sticks or intravenous drug use). In addition, before the availability of widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992, the virus was often spread through blood transfusions (as in Mary’s case) and organ transplants.
Why is screening so important?
Like Mary, up to 75 percent of those infected with HCV are unaware they have the virus. Because of this, testing for HCV is vitally important. Scientific advances in the last few years have resulted in treatments that are shorter and more effective than in previous years, thus making a cure possible for more patients.
Who should get tested?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following people get tested for HCV:
* Anyone born from 1945 through 1965
* Anyone who received donated blood or organs before 1992
* Health and safety workers who have been exposed to blood on the job through a needle stick or injury with a sharp object
* Anyone born to a mother with hepatitis C
* Anyone with certain medical conditions, such as chronic liver disease and HIV or AIDS
* Anyone who has injected drugs, even just once or many years ago
* Anyone with abnormal liver tests or liver disease
* Anyone on hemodialysis
How do you get tested?
Physicians use a blood test called a hepatitis C antibody test to determine if a person has been infected with HCV. If the results come back non-reactive, or negative for antibodies, the person does not have HCV. If it is reactive, or positive for antibodies, the person has been infected at some point but does not necessarily have the virus at that time. A second blood test, called an RNA or PCR test, is needed to confirm if the person is currently infected with HCV.
What should you do if you have the chronic hepatitis C virus?
If both tests indicate a person is infected with HCV, it is important to consult a hepatitis C specialist to discuss the opportunity for treatment and to potentially be cured.
Mary recently finished taking a treatment regimen that has made the virus undetectable in her blood. She is hopeful that she will get the official word (three months after the end of treatment) that she is cured. “I had pretty much given up hope that there could be a cure for me,” Mary said. “But there are more HCV treatment options available than there used to be.” She encourages anyone who thinks they may be at risk to ask their doctor to be screened and, if diagnosed, seek care from a hepatitis C specialist.
To learn more about HCV, visit HepCHope.com.