MONDAY, June 12, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Hepatitis C is a serious viral infection that can damage your liver over time, but is there a cure for this insidious disease?
Over 2 million adults in the United States are infected with hepatitis C, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This virus attacks the liver, often silently, in the early stages of the disease. Untreated, hepatitis C can lead to liver scarring, liver cancer and death. It is one of the leading causes of liver transplants in the United States. Fortunately, this potentially deadly disease is curable.
How is hepatitis C curable?
There have been significant advances in the treatment of hepatitis C. According to the Mayo Clinic, “direct-acting” antiviral medications successfully treat the virus. These treatments have been shown to decrease treatment time with fewer side effects. The exact drugs and treatment plan depends on the hepatitis C genotype, existing liver damage and your medical history. It is recommended to retest for the virus 12 to 24 weeks after treatment, to see if the medication was effective.
The World Health Organization reports that “antiviral medicines can cure more than 95% of persons with hepatitis C infection, but access to diagnosis and treatment is low.”
It is essential to know that you can be reinfected with hepatitis C after you are cured. Because you can get hepatitis C again once you have cleared the virus, those who have at-risk behaviors should be tested yearly for infection, the CDC says.
Is there a hepatitis C vaccine?
Hepatitis A and hepatitis B have vaccines available; however, hepatitis C does not. Dr. Stacey Rizza explains why in an article for the Mayo Clinic. “The hepatitis C virus is more variable than hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses. Hepatitis C occurs in at least seven genetically distinct forms (genotypes) with multiple subtypes," she explained. "About 60 subtypes have been identified. Different genotypes cause infections in different parts of the world. A global vaccine would have to protect against all variants of the virus.”
Ethical costs and concerns also exist with using an animal model to develop such a vaccine. Those costs and considerations are weighed against the fact that hepatitis C is curable.
Hepatitis C prevention
The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through exposure to blood from an infected person. According to the CDC, this often occurs from sharing needles, syringes or any other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.
The Veterans Administration recommends taking the following measures to prevent exposure to hepatitis C:
- If you use drugs, speak with your provider about treatment to stop using drugs or available harm reduction in your area. If you are unable to stop using drugs:
- Don’t share any equipment used to prepare or inject drugs, including syringes, needles, filters, water, water containers, cotton or ties
- Use brand-new or clean needles every time. Do not borrow needles or equipment. Get your needles from a pharmacy or needle exchange program
- If you must reuse equipment, mark yours for easy identification
- Use an extra sterile syringe for splitting drugs
- If you must share a syringe, clean it with bleach and sterile water
- Snorting drugs can cause bleeding inside your nose, do not share snorting straws
- Smoking drugs from a pipe can expose you to blood from cracks or burns on lips, so do not share a pipe or use your own rubber stem
- Practice safe sex, use a condom, dental dam or other latex barrier, and avoid rough sex
- Receptive anal sex is the riskiest behavior for hepatitis C infection
- Having a sexually transmitted infection places you at greater risk of hepatitis C infection; ensure you are tested and treated, including receiving vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B
Tattoos and piercings
- Only get tattooed or pierced in regulated studios that display certificates from the state they are located
- Make sure the tattoo artists are licensed
- Needles and ink pots should be single-use, and artists should wear latex gloves
- Prison tattoos and piercings or those done by friends place you at a greater risk
In addition, do not share razors, toothbrushes, toothpicks or nail clippers; these can all harbor the vaccine. And only get injections from a licensed professional who uses clean syringes.
If you suspect you may have been exposed or have symptoms of this virus, seek medical care. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include fatigue, nausea, yellowing of the skin, weight loss, confusion, swelling and itchy skin, among others.
The Veterans Administration lists the following free resources:
- Free, fast, and confidential hepatitis C testing from the CDC
- Drug treatment centers, or 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- Needle exchange programs Note: This list may not contain all community programs. Ask your provider if you need help finding a location close to you
- Protecting yourself and others when using drugs
- Instructions for cleaning injection equipment