Hepatitis C is a type of liver disease that’s caused by a bloodborne virus of the same name. This condition may be acute with short-term symptoms or chronic with long-term complications.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) has no vaccine, so it’s important to understand the risks and overall outcomes for this disease. Talk to your doctor about your individual risks and concerns. In the meantime, read on to learn more about the state of HCV in the United States.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 71 million people have chronic HCV worldwide.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 3.5 million people are living with chronic HCV. Acute HCV is far less common in the U.S. population, with about 41,200 cases estimated to have occurred in 2016.
HCV also varies by severity. Some people might have acute episodes and become severely ill for a short period of time. Others might have severe symptoms that are chronic, and can even last for a lifetime.
HCV is transmitted through blood. Possible modes of transmission include shared needles, exposure between cuts and wounds, and unsafe injection practices.
It’s also possible to spread HCV through blood transfusions. However, this is almost unheard of nowadays in the United States thanks to advanced screening practices.
You may not experience any acute symptoms for up to six months. On the other hand, chronic HCV may not show up for several years.
When you do have symptoms of HCV, they may include:
- yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
- dark urine
- joint pain
- nausea or vomiting
- lack of appetite
- abdominal pain
- gray feces
Diagnosing HCV infection isn’t always a straightforward process. This is because you might not experience any symptoms right away.
The rest of HCV cases resolve after the acute infection. This happens to about 15 to 25 percent of people with acute HCV infection.
It’s also possible to have acute HCV without knowing it. Many cases are asymptomatic.
Considering these facts, it’s not always possible to diagnose HCV right away. It can also be difficult to pinpoint when you were exposed.
Your doctor might suggest diagnostic tests if they think you’re at risk for exposure. Some of these risk factors include:
- travel to a country with a high prevalence of HCV and exposure to blood
- drug use
- a previously diagnosed HIV infection
- having a parent with HCV
- sexual activity with partners you know have HCV
The CDC recommends testing for adults born between 1945 to 1965. People who had blood transfusions before July 1992 might also consider testing. The reason for this is that HCV transmission was highest in the 1960s to 1980s, and universal safety measures weren’t established yet.
To diagnose HCV infection, your doctor will measure HCV antibodies and HCV genetic material in your blood. They may also order blood and imaging tests to determine the overall health of your liver.
Chronic HCV infection is curable with antiviral treatments. The downside, though, is the staggering cost for many, which can be offset by insurance companies and subsidies.
While the United States has more access to antiviral drugs than other countries, these medications are still very expensive. A 12-week treatment plan could cost up to $95,000 without insurance.
Many advocates continue to push back against these high costs. Still, it’s important to check with your insurance company to get a better idea of what your bottom line might be for ongoing HCV treatment.
The exact outcome for hepatitis C depends on the severity of your condition, as well as how treatment has been able to help manage your symptoms while delaying permanent liver damage.
Many people with chronic HCV infection will eventually develop complications such as liver damage (cirrhosis). Others may develop liver cancer.
Despite these complications, HCV infection prognoses are positive as long as you take antiviral medications. According to the WHO, these drugs can cure about 95 percent of all cases. Access to these medications can vary, though. Antivirals are more available in the United States compared to other countries.
There’s also no vaccine available for HCV, so it’s possible to transmit the virus to others via blood. Antiviral medications can help reduce the risk of transmission, but your sexual partners may also need to take them, too.
While statistics are important when looking at the overall possibilities of HCV, your doctor is your best resource for all things related to your specific case. They can keep you aware of new treatments and research in the area, and even talk to you about clinical trials you might be interested in.
It’s also crucial that you reach out to your doctor if symptoms return, or if you don’t feel like your current treatment is working. With the right plan, along with access and cost management, curing HCV may be within reach.