What the Heck is HEP?

December 17, 2014 | Communicable Disease

By Gallatin City-County Health Department’s Communicable Disease Program

Hepatitis C Virus Awareness

What is it?

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a virus that attacks the liver. The illness can range from mild, lasting for a few weeks (acute) to a severe lifelong illness (chronic). The CDC estimates 3.2 million individuals are infected with HCV, and 75 percent of these individuals are chronically infected and may be unaware that they have the illness. Out of every 100 persons infected with HCV, 5 to 20 will go on to develop cirrhosis over a period of 20 to 30 years and 1 to 5 will die from liver cancer or cirrhosis. Chronic HCV infection is the leading indication for liver transplants in the United States.

How is it Spread?

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Previous to 1992, when blood screening was introduced, most people contracted the illness through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Most people today are infected with Hepatitis C by the sharing of needles or other equipment for injection drug use. There is no vaccination against Hepatitis C so it is important to take appropriate precautions to prevent the illness.

Who should be tested?

All persons born from 1945 to 1965 without any other risk factors need to be tested once. This age group is five times more likely to be infected. Many people in this age group are unaware of chronic HCV infection.

Ask your health care provider to be tested for HCV at your next appointment if you have any other risk factors which include:

  • Injection drug use (currently the most common means of HCV transmission in the U.S.)
  • Receipt of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now rare in the U.S. since blood screening became available in 1992)
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings
  • Birth to an HCV-infected mother

The Testing Procedure

In testing for HCV, several blood tests are performed, including:

  • Screen test for antibody to HCV (anti-HCV): This test looks for antibodies to the Hepatitis C virus. Antibodies are chemicals released into the bloodstream when someone gets infected. It generally takes a few days for test results.
  • If the antibody test is reactive, a follow up test known as HCV RNA or PCR is required. If your RNA test is negative this could indicate that your body has cleared the virus. If the result is positive it indicates that you have HCV. A quantitative RNA test will determine the level of virus in your body.

Treatment

Until late 2013, the mainstay for HCV treatment was interferon and ribavirin. However the FDA has approved two new direct acting antiviral drugs known as Sofosbuvir and Simeprevir to treat chronic HCV infections. The benefits of these new medications are a shorter course of treatment and a decrease in side effects.

Prevention

  • Do not share needles or other equipment to inject cosmetic substances, drugs, or steroids.
  • Do not use personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, or glucose monitors.
  • Do not get tattoos or body piercings from an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting.

Resources

For more information about the different types of Hepatitis, go here.

For more information about the Gallatin City-County Health Department’s Communicable Disease Program, go here.

For more information about Hepatitis C from the CDC, go here.