A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Hepatitis C: Millions have it, don’t know it

Hepatitis C graphic on colorful backgroundDo you have Hepatitis C?

Are you really sure you know the answer to this question? 

Don’t feel bad if you have no idea. About 3.2 million Americans have this chronic liver disease and most don’t know it. Why would they? They don’t look or feel sick.

Hep C hits boomers

But for millions of baby boomers born between 1945-65, reality is about to come crashing down. Three out of four people with chronic hepatitis C are ages 50-70 and many became infected before the virus was even identified.

“Thousands of people who are Marshfield Clinic patients have hepatitis C and don’t know it,” said Dr. Daniel Van Handel, a Clinic gastroenterologist. “We need to get people screened because they are in danger of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.”

New Hepatitis C treatments

Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this cloud. New drug treatments are up to 95 percent effective and are much quicker acting and easily tolerated than the old treatment regimen. That chemotherapy-like protocol was only 40-50 percent effective in treating hepatitis C. Patients experienced bad flu-like symptoms and fatigue for nearly a year.

“When I talk with people now who are newly diagnosed, I tell them first to relax,” Van Handel said. “Hepatitis C is not a death sentence.”

How it’s spread

Many people with hepatitis C contract it from sharing intravenous needles or “snorting” illicit drugs through their noses. Some older baby boomers with hepatitis C got it from a blood transfusion prior to 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States. But there is a stigma against hepatitis C because of its association with drug abuse.

While the newest treatments are effective, they cost anywhere from $60,000-180,000, depending on the patient. Old treatments were also expensive but didn’t work for half the patients, so newer medications actually cost less per “cure” but more per “treatment,” Van Handle said. Most commercial health insurance plans cover this treatment.

The lesson is to avoid hepatitis C altogether, or if it’s too late for that, at least identify it before it causes extensive damage to the liver.

“The key is to educate our young people that snorting drugs and sharing needles is unsafe. All it takes is one exposure to a contaminated medium,” he said.

And if you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C, ask your doctor about the simple blood test for this disease.

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