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Curing hepatitis C — a virus that attacks the liver — is possible. Screening is vital for identifying the disease early when damage can be reversed and before the organ has paid a heavy price.
Hepatitis C is contagious and spreads through contact with the blood of an infected individual. About one in five cases of hepatitis C infection is cleared naturally by the body; however, the remaining cases develop into chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C infection causes inflammation in the liver that can lead to scarring and even organ failure if left untreated.
“Often, there aren’t symptoms with hepatitis C,” said Jenny Harkins, manager of the Hepatitis C Clinic and GI Motility Clinic at Jewish Hospital, part of KentuckyOne Health. “Individuals who have the virus may not realize it for decades. Then, one day, a routine laboratory exam will show elevated liver enzymes. The best way to know if you’ve been exposed is to test the virus directly using an antibody test, because not everyone will have elevated liver enzymes.”
By the time symptoms appear, hepatitis C may have already reached an advanced stage.
The ability of hepatitis C to exist in the body for years without detection makes estimating the disease’s prevalence difficult for public health officials. One thing is clear: The virus is a major concern in Kentucky, where the rate of new infections is twice the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two groups seem to be most vulnerable to hepatitis C: younger adults and baby boomers.
From 2008 to 2015, no state had a higher rate of new hepatitis C infections than Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s State Health Assessment Report, 2017 Update. In 2015, individuals 25–34 years old accounted for the largest proportion of new infections — 40 percent. The high rate of hepatitis C infection in Kentucky is closely related to the Commonwealth’s opioid epidemic, as sharing needles to inject heroin and painkillers increases individuals’ risk for contracting the virus.
For baby boomers, many cases of hepatitis C are likely traceable to health care services they received decades ago rather than to present-day substance abuse, according to Harkins.
“Baby boomers appear to be most at risk for having hepatitis C without knowing it,” Harkins said. “We think many of their infections occurred as a result of medical and dental procedures they had 30 to 40 years ago, when sanitation and sterilization protocols were less strict than they are today.
“Back then, it was common for providers to use the same equipment with multiple patients,” she continued. “Hepatitis C can be difficult to kill without proper sanitation procedures. Nowadays, medical equipment is either single-use or is sterilized after every patient encounter using a high-heat, high-pressure machine called an autoclave, which prevents infection.”
The CDC recommends individuals born between 1945 and 1965 get tested for hepatitis C, which providers can do using blood tests; the most common is the hepatitis C antibody test. Many patients diagnosed with the virus have reason to hope. An average of 12 weeks of oral medication therapy is enough to clear hepatitis C from the body, according to Harkins.
“Some think there is only one medication to treat hepatitis C, when in fact, there are 12 approved by the Food and Drug Administration,” Harkins said. “Treatment is typically easy. Since 2013, we’ve had effective, gentle medications that patients take for 8 to 12 weeks, sometimes up to 24 weeks, and they have cure rates as high as 100 percent in some cases. If you know you have hepatitis C, we can treat it, but you won’t know you have the virus unless you get screened.”
If you have been diagnosed but aren’t receiving treatment, the Hepatitis C Clinic at Jewish Hospital, part of KentuckyOne Health, can help. The Hepatitis C Clinic offers liver assessments and antiviral therapy.
“We want to ensure everyone has access to treatment for hepatitis C and, ultimately, cure them,” said Harkins. “Getting rid of the virus doesn’t just benefit the liver. It also reduces patients’ chances of developing other issues, such as insulin resistance, kidney disease and overall all-cause mortality.”
KentuckyOne Health also plans to open a Hepatitis C Clinic in Lexington at Saint Joseph East, part of KentuckyOne Health, in the future.
To schedule an appointment at the Hepatitis C Clinic at Jewish Hospital, call 844.258.6211. A referral from your primary care physician may be required.
Testing for hepatitis C requires only a simple finger stick similar to checking your blood sugar.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 Summer edition of One Health magazine. For more health and wellness stories, sign up for your free subscription today.