Hepatitis is medical term used to describe inflammation of the liver. There are various types of hepatitis, and infection with a virus is one of the most common causes. With viral hepatitis, a virus attacks liver cells and slowly leads to their destruction. The major viruses that cause hepatitis are labeled A,B,C,D,E or G.
One that is of particular interest these days is hepatitis C, caused by the hepatitis C virus. The reason hepatitis C is getting so much attention is because almost 2% of the American population tests positive for this virus. Many don’t even know they have the infection until they develop signs of liver damage many years down the road. How Do People Get Hepatitis C?Hepatitis C is transmitted by exposure to blood from someone who is infected with the hepatitis C virus. People at highest risk are those who have used I.V. drugs in the past or shared needles with an infected person. Estimates are that about 1 in 7 people who use IV drugs carry the hepatitis C virus.
Blood transfusions and organ transplants are another source of hepatitis C infection, but only transfusions and organs received before 1992 are risky. After that time, all blood and organs were screened for hepatitis C. Other potential ways to get hepatitis C is through tattoos and piercings done with non-sterile instruments and by sharing personal items such as scissors or razors contaminated with blood containing the virus. Any skin puncture with a needle or sharp object tainted with an infected person’s blood can theoretically transmit hepatitis C. It’s still not clear whether hepatitis C can be spread sexually. The risk seems to be highest for people who have multiple sexual partners or who have anal sex.
The hepatitis C virus isn’t spread by kissing or eating or drinking after someone with the virus. The virus can be transmitted from mother to child during delivery, but the risk is low. How Does Hepatitis C Affect the Liver?When the hepatitis C virus first infects a person, they usually don’t have symptoms. If they do, they may feel tired, have vague abdominal pain, decreased appetite, dark urine and yellow skin or eyes. The symptoms are usually mild and brief, if they occur at all. Unfortunately, the majority of people go on to develop chronic hepatitis C where the virus stays inside the liver cells.
Here, it can cause inflammation and destruction of the liver. Even at this point, an infected person may have few symptoms. Despite the lack of symptoms, over a period of years, the virus can cause serious liver damage. Fortunately, there are treatments that can reduce the risk of this happening. How do people discover they have the virus when hepatitis C has so few symptoms early on? Most people find out through a routine blood test. When they visit their doctor for a check-up and labs, their doctor discovers their liver enzymes are elevaeted. To find out why, their doctor orders hepatitis C testing and discovers they carry the virus. At this point, they may have had the virus for many years. Hepatitis C can be remarkably silent while quietly doing damage to the liver.
After decades, hepatitis C can progress to the point of causing cirrhosis of the liver. Such massive destruction of liver cells can take place that a liver transplant is the only option. Hepatitis C also increases the risk of other serious complications such as liver cancer. This is why diagnosis and treatment are so important. TreatmentThe goal of therapy is to stop the virus from actively replicating and infecting new liver cells. The standard treatment has been a combination of antiviral drugs ribavirin and peg-interferon. Unfortunately, these drugs have side-effects that make them difficult to tolerate. Many people develop flu-like symptoms and some have psychiatric symptoms and severe depression while on them. A significant number of people stop taking the medications because of side effects. Up to half of people don’t respond to treatment with these drugs even when they take them as prescribed.
A New Treatment Option for Hepatitis CRecently, the FDA approved two new medications to treat hepatitis C. These medications are called telprevir and boceprevir. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, telaprevir combined with ribavirin and interferon cured hepatitis C infection in 75% of people versus 44% of those who received ribavirin and interferon alone. Even more encouraging is the fact that 90% of the people who went on to receive 24 weeks of treatment showed no evidence of the virus. This is half of the normal course of treatment, which took 48 weeks with ribavirin and interferon alone. Telaprevir and boceprevir work by blocking an enzyme the hepatitis C virus needs to replicate. Side effects include fatigue, headache, itching, skin irritation, rectal pain and anemia. To be effective, these new drugs must be used in combination with ribavirin and interferon. Other Developments Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have developed a vaccine against the hepatitis C virus that they’re testing. They created this vaccine by adding DNA from the hepatitis C virus to an inactivated cold virus. When they injected this material into mice, they developed antibodies against hepatitis C. Of course, this vaccine needs human testing, but it offers a ray of hope for eventually preventing this common form of hepatitis that can destroy the liver.
References:Medscape Family Medicine. “FDA Approves Telaprevir for HCV”Private MD Labs. “Researchers Develop Possible Hepatitis C Vaccine”
Short Summary:Hepatitis C is a viral disease that causes inflammation of the liver. This virus affects 2% of the American population and can cause liver damage and even death. Find out more about this condition,how it’s treated and the latest research in this area.