By Vicki Shah, PA-C
Over the last 10 years, I have treated and helped cure more than 1,000 people with hepatitis C of all ages and backgrounds. It’s rewarding, to say the least, when my patients can move forward with one less health burden.
My patients usually struggle with the negative connotations of drug use associated with hepatitis, but this not the only way to contract hepatitis C. It can also be transmitted from blood transfusions, mother to child, or any blood-to-blood contact like needle sticks.
These patients are not alone. About 3.4 million people have hepatitis C in the U.S., and half of them don’t know they have the infection. Interestingly, three of every four people with hepatitis C are baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965 and infected decades ago.
The main reason why a person might not know they have the infection is that they have not been screened for hepatitis C. Other reasons include that basic labs show normal liver enzymes and there can be no symptoms until there is progressive liver disease.
Cirrhosis can be the resulting condition of untreated hepatitis C, and it increases the risk of liver cancer, the need for a liver transplant and death.
There is also a new surge of infected young people with the increase of opioid drug use. The blood-to-blood contact occurs with sharing of needles or other paraphernalia. Next door in Indiana, there was an outbreak of HIV with over 200 people infected, and 95 percent of those people also got hepatitis C.
The outbreak was devastating to the community because it included 3 generations of families — from preteens to grandmothers.
While we as a whole health community will continue to conquer the rise in opioid drug use, we can stop the epidemic of hepatitis C across the U.S. with awareness and treatment with a short duration of oral medications.
Vicki Shah, PA-C, is a physician assistant at the Rush University Medical Center Medical Center Hepatology Clinic.