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Hepatitis C (HCV)

Hepatitis C causes inflammation of the liver, with an estimated 80% of those infected developing chronic hepatitis. Many people infected with hepatitis C also can develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), and some may also develop liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is spread primarily through contact with infected blood. Less commonly, it can spread through sexual contact and childbirth. There is NO vaccine to prevent HCV. The source of HCV infection remains a mystery in about 10% of the cases. That means preventive measures are your first line of defense against HCV.

The only way to prevent the disease is to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Reducing exposure means avoiding behaviors like sharing drug needles or personal items such as toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers with an infected person.

People most likely to be exposed to the hepatitis C virus include: injection drug users; people with tattoos or piercings done with unsterile instruments; people who have sex with an infected person; people who have multiple sex partners; health care workers; infants born to infected women; hemodialysis patients; people who received a transfusion of blood or blood products before July 1992, when sensitive tests to screen blood donors for hepatitis C were introduced; and people who received clotting factors made before 1987, when methods to manufacture these products were improved.

The hepatitis C virus is found mainly in blood. Injection drug use accounts for about 60% of all new cases of hepatitis C and is a major risk factor for infection with hepatitis B virus. Among frequent drug users, 50-80% are infected by HCV within the first 12 months of beginning injecting. Straws shared in snorting drugs are also a potential source of infection of HCV. HCV is not spread through kissing or casual contact.

Most people infected with HCV don’t have symptoms and lead normal lives. Symptoms may be very mild and flu-like: nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, fever, headaches, and abdominal pain. Most people do not have jaundice although jaundice can sometimes occur along with dark urine. Those infected with hepatitis C should not drink alcohol, as it accelerates the liver damage.

The incubation period varies from 2-26 weeks. Liver enzyme tests may range from being elevated to being normal for weeks to as long as a year. The virus is in the blood and may be causing liver cell damage, and the infected person can transmit the disease to others.

About 3.2 million are chronically infected with HCV, with many showing no signs or symptoms. The good news is that, in 1995, a reliable antibody test for HCV was finally implemented nationwide. About 41,000 new cases occurred in 1998 with 15-25% recovering spontaneously. Hepatitis C is a slow-progressing disease that may take 10-40 years to cause serious liver damage in some people.