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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
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:
-- 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
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