CINCINNATI—Although education for the prevention of viral diseases, particularly those that are sexually transmitted, is widespread, the number of people infected with hepatitis C continues to increase.
According to UC expert Kenneth Sherman, MD, of the division of digestive diseases, about 40,000 new cases of hepatitis C—the most common type of hepatitis—are reported each year. Most of those infected may not know it until late in the illness.
“It may take 20 to 30 years after contracting the illness for symptoms to appear,” Sherman said. “As a result, the disease has often been called the ‘silent epidemic.’”
May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month, and Sherman says it’s a good time to remind people of the ways to avoid contracting hepatitis C.
“Hepatitis C is spread mostly through bodily fluid and blood exposure due to unprotected sex and using intravenous drugs,” Sherman said, adding that about 180 million people are infected with hepatitis C worldwide. “In the United States, it has increased among Hispanics and African-Americans between the ages of 30 and 50.”
Sherman said many patients with hepatitis C eventually develop cirrhosis—scarring of the liver—or liver cancer. He said the disease may be “silent” until its last stages.
Those at risk who should seek screening include:
- Intravenous drug users (even if the use was one time many years prior)
- People who have multiple sex partners
- Recipients of an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992
- Those exposed to contaminated blood, including health care workers and children with infected parents
Sherman added that acute hepatitis C is spreading among homosexual men, including those infected with HIV.
“Medications used against the HIV virus often give patients a sense of complacency, and they feel it’s safe to have unprotected sex,” he said. As a result, the “bath houses” and parties where men once met for sex with multiple partners are becoming popular again.
There is no confirmed cure for hepatitis C, but UC researchers are currently involved in several clinical trials testing new medication combinations that could improve treatment response.
“We know the genetic structure of hepatitis C,” Sherman said. “From that, pharmaceutical companies are working to target different functions of the virus to eliminate or slow its effects in the system.”
He said the more commonly used hepatitis C drugs on the market cause a variety of side effects, including fever and aches as well as anemia, rashes and nausea.
Sherman said it’s hoped this next generation of drugs will eliminate the virus and create fewer side effects.
“Over the last 15 years we’ve moved from hepatitis C virus cure rates of 5 to 6 percent to nearly 50 percent today,” Sherman said. “We’ve made huge advances in a relatively short time, but there’s still room for improvement.”