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From the column Health and Wellness

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You may have seen billboards that read: “If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you should be tested for hepatitis C.” There’s a reason for this. It’s estimated that nearly 3 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C (Hep C), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Most of this population is among baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965.

Hep C refers to a virus that causes an infection or inflammation of the liver. For some, it is a short-term illness, but for most (70 to 85 percent of those infected), the result is a long-term, chronic infection. Since most people have no outward symptoms, one could have hepatitis C for a long time and not know it until the liver is damaged. Untreated, it can last a lifetime, causing liver failure, cancer, and death. This is why it’s so important for those who have been involved in the use of intravenous drugs or who have come into unprotected contact with the blood of others to be tested.

Hep C is a “blood-born” pathogen. This means it is transmitted via contact with the blood of an infected individual. It can be passed through unsanitary tattooing procedures, but traditionally, it has been spread most frequently through the sharing of hypodermic needles and drug paraphernalia.

Hep C is now emerging as a serious problem for boomers because of poor infection control in the healthcare setting. It is not unusual to see infections among healthcare workers who come into contact with the blood of those suffering the virus. In my congregation, two older members contracted the disease at an earlier time in their lives, but neither one of them had a history of drug use. One of them died of liver failure at the age of 67. The CDC is particularly concerned about the rise of Hep C infections and is working to create greater awareness of the seriousness of a problem that may go undiagnosed for a long time.

There are two types of Hep C. Acute is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after exposure and results in symptoms that often lead to immediate treatment. Chronic Hep C is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in the body, often with no symptoms until after damage has been done to the liver. Chronic Hep C is the leading cause of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. It is also the most common reason for liver transplantation.

Chronic Hep C can be treated. If you test positive (through a simple blood test) your healthcare provider will likely start you on medications recommended by the CDC, and will closely monitor liver function. You might be instructed to avoid medications that can be toxic to the liver such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and some prescription medications.

Although rare, Hep C can be spread within a household. This usually happens as a result of direct through-the-skin exposure. For example, someone cuts a finger and another moves to clean up the blood (without gloves). If the blood enters an open cut, a person assisting could contract the disease.

Since the 1980s, treatment of chronic Hep C has involved injections of inteferon and oral doses of riboflavin. These resulted in control of the disease, but with side effects, such as fatigue, flulike symptoms, mild anxiety, skin rash, depression, and gastrointestinal problems.

Treatments have advanced in recent years with the approval of the drugs sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and simeprevir (Olysio), Harvoni, and Viekira Pak, which are reported to be effective in curing the disease with minimal adverse effects. Unfortunately, this cure comes with a price. According to healthcare journalist Madeline R. Vann, the cost of one full treatment course for Hep C can reach $100,000 per patient, and some patients require two courses. Fortunately, a variety of directly acting antivirals (DAAs) are in development, which would make Hep C treatment more affordable.

Hepatitis C is a slow killer, but advances in medicine provide hope for sufferers. If you were born during the high risk years of 1945-1965 or suspect you might have Hep C, talk to your doctor about being tested. Your life may depend on it.

Rev. Charlotte Evans is a registered nurse and elder in Greensboro, North Carolina. She serves as director for Nazarene Parish Nursing (NPN). NPN focuses on care of the spirit and promotes holistic health and prevention of illness as part of the local church ministry team.

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