Hepatitis C, also known as HCV or “hep C” is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver.. First recognized in the early 1970's, hepatitis C was originally known as non-A non-B hepatitis. The test for distinctive antibodies to the virus was first used in 1989, and is now a routine tool for diagnosing the disease. An estimated 4 million Americans are believed to suffer from hepatitis C with 40,000 new cases each year. It is believed that 80-85% of all cases become chronic (still detectable in the blood 6 months after infection). The life expectancy of chronic hepatitis C patients is unclear at this point because 20% may develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), with 25% of these people progressing to liver cancer or failure. There is no preventative vaccine nor cure for hepatitis C and is currently the leading cause of liver transplantation.

The symptoms of hepatitis C vary greatly. It is a slowly progressing disease whose incubation period can vary from 2 to 26 weeks with many patients leading normal lives symptom-free. Those less fortunate usually start feeling its effects 10-20 years after infection and often report flu-like symptoms that may include fatigue, fever, nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, headache, depression, dark urine, and rarely, jaundice (yellow skin).

Persons especially at risk are those who received blood transfusions prior to 1992, health care workers, those in first response professions, veterans of the armed forces, those with body piercings or tattoos, anyone who has EVER abused drugs, hemodialysis patients and anyone who's had any invasive surgical procedures where instruments used may not have been properly sterilized (only heat disinfection kills the virus). It's important to note that a large percentage of those with hepatitis C do not know how they were infected.

Testing for hepatitis C is done by simple blood test to identify the presence of antibodies. Since hepatitis C testing is not a component of a routine physical examination in most states, people must specifically ask their physicians to be tested for the disease. When the original test is positive, a second type of test will be performed to verify the diagnosis, to determine if the virus is measurably active, and to eliminate the possibility of laboratory error. High liver enzyme levels (ALT and AST) indicate ongoing liver injury although are not considered reliable to determine severity of the disease. Actual damage to the liver is normally assessed by ultrasound, biopsy, CT and/or MRI scan.

Hepatitis C is transmitted is transmitted through blood to blood contact. There is no proof that the disease is transmitted through semen, saliva or breast milk, although sexual transmission has been suspected in rare cases where blood is involved. Transmission through childbirth is also considered rare, although possible. Other known modes of transmission include: sharing razors, toothbrushes, tweezers, fingernail files and clippers, as well as scissors used for cutting hair. Sharing ANY kind of needle whether through drug use, tattooing, body piercing or acupuncture can also put you at risk for hepatitis C. All patients with the virus are presumed contagious, and extreme care must always be used when handling their blood. Opinions vary, but it is believed that the hepatitis C virus can remain active up to two weeks or longer outside of the body. Unlike hepatitis B, prior infection does not provide immunity, nor does prior vaccination for the A or B virus.

There is currently no preventative vaccine or cure for hepatitis C. The name refers to a number of different extremely virulent strains (genotypes) of virus, all having the ability to change their makeup as needed in order to remain immune to any attempts to eradicate it. This characteristic makes it very difficult to develop a cure.

Approved treatments for hepatitis C are improving but none are effective in completely eradicating the disease from the body, nor are there tests available that are sensitive enough to truly measure absolute zero virus in the blood. Preferred conventional treatments include a drug called interferon, or interferon combined with a second drug called ribavirin. A new longer acting version of interferon called “pegylated” interferon was approved in 2001 and this drug combined with ribavirin is presently the treatment of choice for many physicians. These treatments are not recommended for all hepatitis C patients, and many cannot tolerate the frequently severe side affects. These include extreme flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, fever, depression, problems with appetite, suicidal/homicidal thoughts, and hair loss. Because the medication depresses the bone marrow it may also impede the production of platelets and white blood cells. The long term effect of using these medications is unknown. Although not often medically recognized, many patients report improvement with symptoms and number counts by using alternative methods such as acupuncture, herbs, vitamins, and diet.

Few recover from hepatitis C and monitoring of the disease can be difficult because of the fluctuating tendency of liver function numbers. Viral activity is determined through Poly Chain Reaction (PCR) testing (blood test). What these numbers actually mean in relationship to disease progression remains to be determined.

Diet is of primary importance for anyone with hepatitis C. A diet low in fat and sodium, and high in nutrients from fresh fruits and vegetables is advised. Vitamin supplements without iron are also recommended. With liver inflammation, toxins can build up and contribute significantly to patient discomfort. This is why it’s important to have regular bowel movements and fluid elimination in order to better manage symptoms.

Hepatitis C is big business. Companies involved in both alternative and traditional medicine reap large profits from providing the very hope of renewed health that we all seek. Beware of any claims to cure the disease and thoroughly research any product you decide to try. Always discuss your treatment choices with your doctor.

When detected early enough and with proper treatment, hepatitis C is normally a survivable disease. It knows no boundaries and can infect anyone. One of the best ways to learn how to live with hepatitis C is to talk with other patients. Find a local support group. If there isn't one in your area, give us a call and we'll try to help you either start one of your own or put you in contact with patients nearby. Last of all, keep a positive mental attitude. Please remember: we CAN do this. . . . and the fight is far from over!

For national support, please contact The National Hepatitis C Coalition HepLine:
(951) 766-8238

National Hepatitis C Coalition, Inc.
P.O.Box 5058
Hemet, CA 92544
http://nationalhepatitis-c.org

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Last Updated January 04, 2012

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