Experts at Montefiore Medical Center urge the general public to be tested for hepatitis C virus, especially baby boomers, adults born between 1946-1964, who could be most at risk for this disease. Baby boomers are more likely to have been exposed to dangerous risk factors decades ago, such as sharing a drug needle, being tattooed or pierced with unsterilized tools or receiving a tainted blood transfusion. The disease often has no symptoms, and if untreated, can lead to chronic infection that can scar the liver, cause liver failure or cancer and potentially lead to liver transplantation.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the most common chronic blood borne infection in the United States, with 35,000 to 185,000 new cases diagnosed per year. Worldwide, 180 million people are chronically infected with Hepatitis C, with an estimated 3 million to 4 million new cases reported each year. The disease particularly affects minorities, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and African-Americans.
"This disease has grown to epidemic proportions, with 350,000 people around the world dying from hepatitis C-related liver disease," says Milan Kinkhabwala, MD, chief of the Division of Transplantation at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Transplantation. "But it is called the 'silent killer' because many people don't even know they have it. This condition can be asymptomatic for decades and then present itself when it has already severely damaged the liver."
Individuals at risk can get a simple blood test to detect the virus before chronic infection leads to permanent liver damage. The Montefiore Medical Center Comprehensive Liver Disease Program offers simple and effective screenings. It is recommended that individuals talk to their primary care physician or contact 888-RX-LIVER (888-795-4837) for more information or to set up an appointment for a screening.
"This is a revolutionary time in the treatment of the disease and there is more hope than ever before," says Kinkhabwala. "The blood test is essential to detecting hepatitis C, because now there are ways to treat the condition, and even reverse damage to the liver."
Two new antiviral oral medications, boceprevir and teleprevir, received FDA approval in May 2011. Both drugs work by blocking an enzyme that helps the virus reproduce. The drugs are intended to improve on standard treatments using the injected drug pegylated interferon alpha and the pill rivavrin.
"So far, the new drugs have shown promise in clearing the virus from the body and almost doubling the cure rate of the disease," says Allan Wolkoff, MD, professor of medicine and of anatomy and structural biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
and Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Liver Diseases at Montefiore and Einstein. "Another key benefit is that they cut treatment time in half, thus reducing the time the patient has to endure the severe side effects, which include anemia, depression and flu-like symptoms like fatigue, fever and headache.
When symptoms do occur after the disease has progressed, they're generally mild and flu-like and may include fatigue, fever, nausea or poor appetite, muscle and joint pain, bruising, abdominal pain, jaundice and itching. At that point, chronic infection can lead to scarring of the liver (fibrosis) and then advanced scarring (cirrhosis). Scarring of the liver makes it difficult for the liver to function properly and can be devastating to the rest of the body, often causing liver failure or liver cancer.
If the liver disease progresses too far and the medications are not effective, then transplantation is the last resort. However, more than 16,000 people in the United States are currently waiting for a liver donor, and in New York State, there are 1,700 patients on the waiting list.
Factors that have been reported to accelerate the rate of HCV disease progression include age, gender (males have more rapid disease progression than females), alcohol consumption, HIV coinfection (approximately 35 percent of patients) and fatty liver (the presence of fat in liver cells caused by obesity).
Unlike hepatitis B, there is no vaccine to prevent this disease. While the symptoms are similar, distinct differences exist between the two viruses. Hepatitis B is primarily transmitted through sexual intercourse and is less severe.