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Hepatitis C Kills More People Than HIV Infection!

Medical Author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Most people, including doctors, would be crying out for help from science and the government if suddenly, a disease was found, and it was killing more people than HIV infections. Unfortunately, such a disease exists, but why has there been no outcry?

Like the slow, silent serial killers found in society, this disease, hepatitis C, slowly and methodically has infected many people. Initially, like an efficient serial killer, people infected with hepatitis C do not realize they are in danger until, for many individuals, the disease becomes untreatable with death as the outcome. However, serial killers are caught and stopped usually when their pattern of attacks are recognized and then publicized so people understand how to protect themselves from attack, or if being attacked, how to defend themselves. The killer, hepatitis C virus, is now better understood so that an initial outcry may be heard. This notice was brought forward in three related publications in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that about 3.2 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus, and that about 50% to 75% of these people (minimally, about 1.6 million people!) are unaware they are infected with this silent killer, with most infected men and women aged 45–64. However, white men comprise the largest group. The CDC suggests the hepatitis C virus uses several methods to infect people:

  • Drug use (especially IV with a shared needle)
  • Receipt of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992)
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings
  • Birth to a hepatitis C virus-infected mother
  • Sexual contact with someone with hepatitis C virus infection (infrequent)
  • Contact with blood from someone with hepatitis C (infrequent, but may occur sharing razors or toothbrushes)

Unfortunately, people with hepatitis C virus may inadvertently infect others because of the many years of "silent" damage that can occur between initial infection and symptom development such as liver problems, jaundice or cirrhosis.

Can this silent serial killer be stopped? Yes. The first step is to determine if a person is infected. The largest populations of "silently" infected people are white males (and some females) between the ages of 45 and 64, and according to the CDC, black males have the highest death rate from the disease (data from 2004-2007). These populations should be tested (screened) for infection with hepatitis C as soon as possible. Those of the highest priority to be tested are the individuals with the risk factors listed above.

If blood tests or biopsy of the liver show a person is infected with hepatitis C (the silent serial killer at work), can anything be done? Yes. The good news is that about 25% of those people infected with the virus will spontaneously recover without medication. The other good news is that several antiviral medications are good at helping the body rid itself of the virus before enough damage has occurred to destroy the liver; cure rates are reported to approach 100%. In some individuals, a liver transplant is the last treatment used against the killer; usually the person still requires antiviral medications even after liver transplantation.

The time to act is now to prevent additional silent serial killings by the hepatitis C virus. For those that are even at a slight risk of being infected, now is the time to get tested. For those who are infected with hepatitis C, now is the time to start treatment. This is the way to stop the viral hepatitis C, the slow and silent serial killer; otherwise the killings will not only continue, but increase (35,000 deaths per year predicted by 2030 if the hepatitis C remains unchecked). We know who you are, we know how you kill, we have the means to detect and stop you; we physicians and potential victims can prevent many deaths if we all act now to stop hepatitis C infections.

REFERENCES:

Annals of Internal Medicine. February 21, 2012, 156:263-290.

CDC.gov. Hepatitis C FAQs for Health Professionals

CDC.gov.Viral Hepatitis Statistics & Surveillance

MedscapeReference. Hepatitis C Management & Treatment


Last Editorial Review: 2/23/2012 6:49:50 PM






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