Hepatitis Awareness Month Highlights Need for Early Detection of Hepatitis C

NORTHFIELD, Ill. -- Almost 4 million Americans are

infected with a potentially deadly liver disease. Yet up to 80 percent of

them do not know they are infected, and many have never even heard of the

disease. Hepatitis C is a virus that enters the body through the blood and

attacks the liver. Attention to this silent, yet potentially deadly,

condition is especially heightened during May, Hepatitis Awareness Month.

"Although about 15 to 25 percent of individuals infected with hepatitis C

fight off the virus, for many others liver damage is inevitable, with one out

of five patients developing cirrhosis," said William J. Becker, DO, MPH, FCAP,

a pathologist with the Ohio Department of Health in Columbus. "Seeking

medical advice in a timely manner is key to minimizing liver damage."

Each year nearly 10,000 people in the United States die from chronic liver

disease associated with hepatitis C. In addition, the virus is now a leading

cause for liver transplants in the U.S.

Hepatitis C is most often transmitted through sharing needles during

intravenous drug use but may be contracted through any exposure to infected

blood or bodily fluids. While screening tests to detect the virus in blood

donations have been used since 1992, individuals who received blood, blood

products or organ transplants before that year may be at risk. Others at risk

include healthcare workers exposed to infected blood, and individuals

receiving a tattoo or body piercing with infected equipment. Although not as

common, the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact with an

infected individual.

Because most hepatitis C victims are asymptomatic, Becker, a physician

who specializes in pathology and laboratory medicine, says when symptoms

appear it is very important to seek medical attention immediately. Those

symptoms can include:

-- Fatigue

-- Loss of appetite

-- Persistent or recurring yellowing of the skin or eyes

-- Tenderness in the area of the liver

-- Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever or muscle

and joint pains.

"Because hepatitis C occurs so often without symptoms, if a blood test

reveals any abnormal liver function results, hepatitis C should be screened

out," Becker said.

If your physician suspects a hepatitis C infection, he or she will order a

blood test and take a complete medical history. Once a diagnosis is made, a

liver biopsy may also be ordered to determine the severity of the disease and

if any damage has occurred in the liver.

"Prevention is really the key to controlling hepatitis C," said Becker. "Since no vaccine is currently available, you could protect yourself

best by not using drugs, practicing safe sex, and avoiding body piercing and

tattoos."

The College of American Pathologists is a medical society serving nearly

16,000 physician members and the laboratory community throughout the world.

It is the world's largest association composed exclusively of pathologists and

is widely recognized as the leader in laboratory quality assurance.

Source: College of American Pathologists

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