There are approximately 3.2 million people living with chronic Hepatitis C in the United States. Up to 75% of them don’t know they are infected, because Hep C doesn’t cause many symptoms. The Hepatitis C virus damages the liver very slowly, so there are very often no signs of infection for 20 years or more. About 60-70% of people with Hep C will go on to develop some sort of liver disease. Cirrhosis, or advanced scarring, will occur in 10-20% of people, with a portion of those dying from complications directly related to their liver disease. This makes screening for Hep C very important – so we can catch and treat people before the liver damage occurs.
Hepatitis C is spread by blood exposure, which usually occurs when people share needles. The blood supply is much safer now, but transfusions prior to 1992 could be a source of infection. There is some evidence that amateur tattoos and sharing cocaine straws also transmit Hepatitis C. The CDC has found that the infection rate is highest in the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1945-1965. It is recommended that all people born between those dates get screened for Hepatitis C.
There is a misconception that Hepatitis C is not treatable. Hepatitis C is curable. For most people, after treatment is done, there is no detectable virus left in the body. Once the virus is gone, the liver can actually regenerate and fix itself. We have new medications now, and more on the near horizon, which make the treatment much easier. There are fewer side effects than there used to be, and the cure rate is much higher than before. People with Hepatitis C should talk to their physician to get a referral to a specialist who is knowledgeable in the details of the current treatment options.