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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hepatitis C represents silent health crisis

Linda Higley Special to Boomer U

Jon was concerned about his sick friend and wanted to help by donating blood. The next day, however, Jon received an urgent message to return to the blood bank. There was startling news. Jon had hepatitis C, a potentially fatal disease.

Jon learned that hepatitis C is transmitted through blood. But he had never done drugs. He had no tattoos or piercings. He had never worked with blood products. Then he finally remembered. His appendix had ruptured 24 years prior, and he had received a blood transfusion. The hepatitis C virus had been growing in his liver since he was 14, and he had never felt sick.

Dr. Bryce Smith of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2012 this warning was made: The United States is in the middle of an unrecognized health crisis.

Hepatitis C is a silent, life-threatening viral infection affecting more than 3 million people. But 75 percent of those infected don’t know their livers are slowly being damaged, sometimes fatally. One of every 30 people born between 1945 and 1965 is infected.

How did the boomers acquire this deadly infection? Some may have gotten the virus while injecting illegal drugs. But many were innocent victims who received blood, blood products or organ donations at some point in their lives.

Some are nurses, physicians, medical technologists, EMTs, any of whom may have been exposed during their work. Scientists didn’t even recognize the virus until the late 1980s, and blood donors weren’t tested for the virus until 1992.

A number of people have gone in for the test. But the CDC recently announced that 50 percent of those who tested positive haven’t followed through to actually see if they are indeed in peril. It’s unknown whether that’s because doctors haven’t told their patients how important it is or if those who have the first positive test are too frightened to confirm the diagnosis.

Smith said that standard liver testing done during routine physical exams may miss as many as half of those who are infected. You must ask for the hepatitis C antibody test. If the result is negative, no more testing is required. But if it’s positive, it’s important to have an “RNA” test to show if the virus is still active.

The virus can cause fatigue, fever, muscle or joint pains, poor appetite, dark urine, yellowing of the eyes or skin or tenderness in the area of the liver. Most people don’t experience severe symptoms for as long as 20 to 30 years after they have been infected.

By then the virus has done its damage, causing scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and even cancer. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States and accounts for more than 50 percent of liver cancer.

A number of well-known people have contracted hepatitis C. Natalie Cole, daughter of Nat King Cole received a liver transplant. She and Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band have performed concerts and spoken candidly about their infections.

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and country singer, Naomi Judd, have been open about contracting hepatitis C. Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and stuntman Evel Knievel died of liver cancer caused by hepatitis C-tainted blood transfusions.

But most of those infected are “ordinary” people. And nearly 50 percent of those testing positive can remember no past risk factors.

For years hepatitis C patients were treated with two medications, but fewer than 50 percent of patients responded. Recently, two new medications have been released. This gives hepatitis C patients a 75 percent chance to beat this disease. Several newer and more effective drugs are in clinical trials and may be released in the next year.

“If you are between age 48 and 68, get tested. Even if you can’t remember any of the risk factors – get tested,” Smith said. “With increasingly effective treatments we can prevent more than 770,000 deaths from hepatitis C.”

Linda Higley is a licensed psychologist in Spokane.