There is a reason Hepatitis C is sometimes called a ‘silent epidemic’ because people very often don’t know they have it until they’re far down the path of progression.
“It is still the number one cause of liver transplantation to date. Another concern is cirrhosis, which can cause liver failure, or liver cancer, which are two both very, very fatal,” says Arlene Wright, nurse practitioner with Lee Memorial Health System.
If tests confirm the presence of virus, treatments are available, including the use of antiviral drugs like those used to treat HIV.
“It’s a rigorous treatment and the patient has to be committed. Not be an alcohol drinker. Their health status has to be assessed, because the medications do have some harmful side effects, such as depression, anemia,” says Wright.
Public health officials find half the people in the US who test positive for Hepatitis C aren’t taking action; skipping follow up testing and treatments. So they don’t know where they stand with an infection that could kill them.
A blood test, called an antibody test, is first used to check if a person has ever been infected with Hepatitis C. The follow up test determines the degree of infection and dictates course of treatment.
“The goal is to eradicate the virus and get the viral load to be undetectable. And after five years if you’ve got no detectable virus, people like to say that they’re cured,” says Wright.
Hep C, which is transmitted through the blood, kills more than 15,000 Americans each year, mostly from cirrhosis and liver cancer. As many as 75% of cases could be cleared up, if people went the distance with treatment.