Hepatitis C – the silent disease
Robbins, 48, an Singletree attorney, says he believes he contracted the virus at a Frisco outpatient center through surgical equipment which hadn’t been properly sterilized.
“I’ve been giving blood every six weeks, so that’s how it showed up,” he says. “The hepatitis C virus showed up in my blood six weeks after the surgery.”
Because he had a strong medical background and was familiar with the hepatitis C virus, Robbins says he didn’t panic,
“It was a shock initially, but six months after the treatment if you’re clean you can say you’re cured,” said Robbins, who after an 11-month long treatment with Interferion, doesn’t have the virus anymore.
Hepatitis is marked by inflammation of the liver, marked by jaundice and usually fever and caused by infectious or toxic agents. It can be acute or chronic and is commonly caused by one of five hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D or E.
The Hepatitis C virus, or HCV, is the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the United States, reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 2 percent of the U.S. is infected with the virus, which can lead to cirrhosis and possibly liver cancer. The virus can be spread via contaminated blood products or by sharing intravenous needles.
In Colorado, 42,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus, reports the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Another 30,000, however, could carry the virus and don’t know it yet, based on CDC estimates.
“The number of infected people is very significant,” says Kathy Jensen, director of information and community outreach for Hep C Connection, a hepatitis C network and support system based in Denver. “Hepatitis C is four times more common than HIV/AIDS in the state and country.”
Although the number of infections per year has declined from an average of 240,000 in the 1980s to about 40,000, most of these persons are chronically infected and might not be aware of their infection because they are not clinically ill, the CDC says. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
The silent disease
Infected persons serve as a source of transmission to others and are at risk for chronic liver disease or other HCV-related chronic diseases during the first two or more decades following initial infection.
A reason there are thousands of infected people who don’t know it yet is that before 1992 there wasn’t a hepatitis C testing available for blood supplies, Jensen says, so people who had transfusions could have been exposed to the virus.
“We don’t hear about it because there’s a stigma about it,” Jensen says. “People believe that when somebody gets the disease it is only through injection drug use, and that’s not true.”
Hepatitis C also can be passed from an infected mother to her baby during birth.
Although some celebrities like Pamela Anderson came out recently to say they have hepatitis C, people are still keeping it very quiet, Jensen says.
“Physicians don’t routinely ask about risk factors or routinely test for this virus,” she adds. “So there are a a lot of people who have the virus and don’t know it.”
And that could be an issue in Eagle County, where the state Department of Public Health and Environment has reported only 5 to 7 cases in 2000 and the same number for 2001.
Sarah Schipper, Eagle County nurse manager, says she expects a similar number for 2002.
“In general, Eagle County has a relatively healthy population,” Schipper says. “People here are focused in exercising and staying healthy. A lot of our health problems are more related to substance abuse or other things that could be prevented.”
But, Jensen says, if one follows the CDC’s estimates, numbers should be higher.
“If you follow the 2 percent reported by the CDC for the whole country, you would expect 800 people to have it,” she says. “This calculation might not be exact for every place, but there’s a possibility that there are many people who have been at risk and haven’t been tested.”
With hepatitis C, early detection is important because the patient then can make important lifestyle decisions, including stopping the use of alcohol and drugs and eating a healthier diet, Jensen said.
“This is a strong virus. It can live outside the body,” she adds.
Jensen says those who’ve had blood transfusions before 1992 or experimented with intravenous drugs are considered at-risk and should get tested.
Hepatitis C is a slowly progressing disease. Robbins said he kept an eye on his liver biopsy to see if there was any damage. Although he didn’t have any symptoms 18 months after being diagnosed, he started treatment with Interferion, a strong drug that can reverse the progress of virus. The drug has many flu-like side effects, however.
“Some people can’t take Interferion well, so some doctors are careful about starting the treatment. But if you wait too long you’re risking irreversible liver damage and you might need a transplant,” Jensen says.
Robbins says doctors warned him that he could feel sick during the treatment. But, he says he works out every day and doesn’t have major problems.
“A year and a half after finishing the treatment, the virus has gone,” he says. “I also lead a healthy life with a balanced diet and no alcohol.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 454 or at email@example.com.