Millions are infected with hepatitis C
Chances are, you don’t think too often about your liver. Unless it is giving you trouble, you probably don’t pay much attention to your body’s largest internal organ.
But your liver is actually a marvelous part of the person you are. Day in and day out, it quietly performs about 500 vital functions essential for healthy living. You’d be nowhere without it.
Your liver processes almost everything that you eat. It detoxifies most of the poisons that get into your body, and it metabolizes most of the drugs you take to fight disease. It stores energy, vitamins and minerals for immediate use wherever they are required in the body. Your liver is also a sophisticated manufacturing plant for hormones, immune factors and other substances your body depends on for good health every day.
Take good care of your liver, and it will take good care of you.
But we live in an age when healthy livers are under threat. Today’s fast-food diets, rich in excess calories, are causing an epidemic of inflammation in the liver known as “fatty liver disease.” Chronic alcohol abuse also takes a heavy toll on livers. But the No. 1 threat to liver health in the United States today is infection, particularly infection due to a rather secretive virus known as hepatitis C.
Most hepatitis C infections go unnoticed. The unsuspecting host is unable to clear the virus from the body and it settles into the liver for a long-term stay.
There the virus silently dismantles the liver’s multifarious machinery over a period of many years, typically two or three decades. Hepatitis C is now the leading cause of chronic liver disease, and it accounts for more than half of all liver transplants.
The size of the hepatitis C epidemic is staggering, far larger than AIDS or any other chronic infection. Today hepatitis C infects at least 2.7 million Americans, and most people who have it don’t even know it. Estimates vary, but it is likely that 2,000 people or more are living with hepatitis C in El Dorado County.
Hepatitis C enters the body through the blood of an infected person. Before the screening of donated blood began in 1992, transfusion of blood or blood products was the most common route of hepatitis C transmission.
Today the chief route of transmission is contaminated needles, like those often used when people inject illicit drugs.
Hepatitis C can also be spread by sharing razors, toothbrushes and other personal care items with an infected person. Certain occupations where there is exposure to blood also increase the risk of hepatitis C. Sexual transmission has been reported, but this is generally not an efficient way of passing on the infection.
The good news about hepatitis C infections today is the possibility of treatment, even cure. New antiviral drugs are able to eradicate the virus in some patients, giving them a new lease on life.
The new drugs are not for everyone. They typically require almost a year of therapy, and they can produce an assortment of unpleasant side effects, including depression, fatigue, muscle aches and dry skin. While cure rates are improving, in many cases these new drugs still fail to clear the virus completely.
But everyone who is infected with hepatitis C can benefit from regular medical check-ups and ongoing preventive liver care. Healthy diets, exercise, stress reduction and reduced alcohol intake can all preserve liver function and lessen the harmful effects of the virus. Hepatitis C does not have to be a death sentence.
Testing is the key to beating hepatitis C. Without knowing if you are infected, chances are you will never take action in time to save your liver. If you know you are infected you can seek the care you need now, and you can take steps to make sure you don’t infect others.
Check with your doctor to see if he or she offers testing for hepatitis C. If not, you can now obtain testing and counseling from the El Dorado County Public Health Department at its Placerville and South Lake Tahoe clinics.
In Placerville, testing will be done on the second and fourth Thursdays each month from 1 to 3 p.m. Make an appointment at (530) 621-6100. In South Lake Tahoe, you can drop in for hepatitis C testing on Tuesdays from 1 to 3:30 pm and Fridays from 8 to 10:30 a.m. For more information about the South Lake Tahoe clinic, please call (530) 573-3155.
If you think you may be at risk of hepatitis C infection, now is the time to know your status. Your liver will thank you.
– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is health officer for El Dorado County.
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