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Hepatitis C: Screening for a Silent Disease

Most adults are concerned about their cancer risk and heart health. But one serious disease you may not be screened for at your annual checkup is hepatitis C—a virus that causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to liver failure or even cancer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 3.2 million people living with hepatitis C in the United States. More than 75 percent of these adults are baby boomers—those born between 1945 and 1965. Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact.

“Baby boomers are five times more likely than other adults to carry hepatitis C, possibly because more than a few injected drugs in early adulthood,” says Douglas Dieterich, MD, Professor of Medicine (Liver Diseases) at Mount Sinai. The CDC recommends that all baby boomers be screened.

Hepatitis C is diagnosed through a simple blood test and early treatment can prevent serious complications. It is estimated that an additional 800,000 people are unaware they are living with the disease. Symptoms, such as yellowing of the skin, fever, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, dark urine, and joint or abdominal pain, typically do not appear until liver damage has already started.

“Getting diagnosed is vital because there are treatments and self-help measures that can help,” adds Dr. Dieterich. “For example, avoiding alcohol and quitting smoking can help slow down liver damage.”

Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, is caused by three major viruses:

Hepatitis A (HAV)

What is it?
Hepatitis A is an acute infection that typically goes away after a few months of treatment. It can be prevented with a vaccine.

How is it spread?
Found in feces, the virus is transmitted through contaminated food or water and improper hygiene.

Hepatitis B (HBV)

What is it?
Hepatitis B, which can also be prevented with vaccination, can be acute or chronic. Most adults with hepatitis B recovery fully, but in some cases liver damage can occur.

How is it spread?
Found in blood and bodily fluids, the virus is transmitted most often by unprotected sex and needle sharing.

Hepatitis C (HCV)

What is it?
Hepatitis C, the most serious of the viruses, is a life-threatening disease. Even though eighty percent of patients will develop a chronic infection, the disease can be cured if it is treated early. New therapies are being developed to increase quality of life. There is no vaccine available.

How is it spread?
The virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, often during drug use, accidental needle sticks, or receiving a blood or organ transplant before 1992. Pregnant women can also infect their unborn baby.

Hepatitis B and C cannot be transmitted through shaking hands, coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils.

Mount Sinai Can Help

The East Harlem community has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C infection in New York City. The Primary Care Hepatitis C Program at Mount Sinai offers free screenings and education as well as disease monitoring and treatment. Uninsured and undocumented patients may also be eligible for free treatment. For more information, call 212-824-7460 or e-mail HEALS@mountsinai.org.


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