Kentucky is no stranger to the hepatitis C virus. More than 38,000 Kentuckians are currently infected with hepatitis C, according to estimates from the Kentucky Department for Public Health. The contagious liver disease can cause liver cancer or cirrhosis, and is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood. It is often contracted by sharing needles or other equipment to inject illegal drugs, sexual contact with someone who has an STD or HIV infection, or getting a shot, tattoo or piercing when the needle has infected blood on it. It can also be passed on to babies at birth by a mother with the disease.
To help combat this growing epidemic, Saint Joseph Berea, part of KentuckyOne Health, is encouraging community members to learn more about the disease, and to get tested for hepatitis C. While the disease is curable, it can take decades for symptoms to appear. About half of those with the disease don’t know they’re infected.
“Hepatitis C can have serious consequences, which is why it’s important to be tested for this disease,” said Jessica Pennington, MD, KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates. “A one-time screening blood test is recommended for people who are at risk, so treatment can begin right away.”
According to a 2017 state assessment from the Kentucky Department for Public Health, Kentucky leads the country for hepatitis C cases. The assessment found that from 2008 to 2015 – the last year with available data – Kentucky had the highest rate of new hepatitis C cases in the United States, with the highest rates occurring in the Appalachian region and northern Kentucky.
It’s estimated that 3.5 million Americans are living with hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s a disease that reportedly kills more Americans than any other infectious disease.
Hepatitis C is a disease that has affected many familiar faces over the years, from baseball star Mickey Mantle, musician Steven Tyler, actor Larry Hagman, and singer Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers, who recently passed away as a result of liver cancer complications.
There are two types of hepatitis – acute hepatitis C and chronic hepatitis C. Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that can occur within the first six months of being exposed to hepatitis C. Most cases do not include symptoms, or have very mild symptoms. Chronic hepatitis C is a long-term illness that occurs when hepatitis C has been in a person’s body for an extended period of time. It can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer or liver failure.
Those suffering from hepatitis C may experience fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, stomach pain, or jaundice – a condition that causes yellow skin or eyes – as well as dark urine.
To determine if you have hepatitis C, talk to a primary care physician about being screened. Screening for hepatitis C is performed with a blood test that looks for the genetic material of the virus that causes hepatitis, or the proteins the body makes to fight hepatitis C.
It’s important to get tested if you have ever injected drugs, received blood from a donor with the disease, have been on long-term kidney dialysis, have HIV, had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992, were born to a mother with hepatitis C, or were born between 1945-1965, when the hepatitis C epidemic peaked.
Treatment for the disease will depend on what type of hepatitis C you have, your medical needs and insurance coverage.
Treatment may include taking daily antiviral pills to help fight the disease. These drugs target the virus that is making you sick, and interferes with proteins in your body that the virus needs to spread. The antiviral drugs can often remove the virus from a patient’s blood within 12 weeks, although it could take up to 24 weeks.
“In the past, side effects for the treatments sometimes included flu-like symptoms, hair loss, fatigue, nervousness, low blood counts and depression,” said Dr. Pennington. “However, newer medications today have minimal side effects.”
In addition, a liver transplant may also be necessary for someone suffering from a severe liver infection.
If you or someone you know are exhibiting symptoms of hepatitis C, or are at risk for the infection, contact a primary care physician for a screening. Visit chooseyourdoor.org or call 888.570.8091 to find a provider near you.
About KentuckyOne Health
KentuckyOne Health, the largest and most comprehensive health system in the Commonwealth, has more than 200 locations, including hospitals, physician groups, clinics, primary care centers, specialty institutes and home health agencies in Kentucky and southern Indiana. KentuckyOne Health is dedicated to bringing wellness, healing and hope to all, including the underserved.