Hepatitis C Frequently Asked Questions
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The infection attacks the liver and causes inflammation. It can result in a mild illness or a chronic, lifelong condition. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.
How does hepatitis C differ from hepatitis A and B?
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are liver diseases caused by three different viruses that are transmitted uniquely:
- Hepatitis A (HAV) is spread by coming into contact with an infected-person’s feces, usually from contaminated food or water. HAV usually presents itself as an acute infection and always clears up on its own. While there is no treatment for HAV, vaccination can prevent it.
- Hepatitis B (HBV) is spread when blood or bodily fluids enter the body of an uninfected person, commonly through sex, sharing needles or from an affected mother during birth. It can start off as an acute infection, but can result in a chronic condition and in some cases, can lead to liver failure and death. Very good treatments are available as well as vaccination.
- Similar to HBV, hepatitis C can also begin as an acute infection, but in most people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but new more successful treatments are available.
How is hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is spread through the transmission of blood and bodily fluids. It is spread most commonly by sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs. Rarely can it be transmitted from mother to baby during childbirth. Prior to 1992, before blood screening programs were introduced, hepatitis C was spread through blood transfusions.
Less commonly, hepatitis C can spread by sharing razors or toothbrushes, tattooing and sexual contact (mostly in men who have sex with men). The virus cannot be spread through the air, breastfeeding, kissing or unbroken skin.
Is there a cure for hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is curable with treatment. Medications such as interferon and ribavirin are used to treat chronic hepatitis C. In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors. With these new treatments, physicians expect that the cure rate for hepatitis C will rise from 40 percent to approximately 70 percent or higher. In addition to these approved drugs, there are more than 40 experimental drugs undergoing clinical trials for hepatitis C. The future for treatment of hepatitis C is very bright.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is often called the hidden or “silent killer” because some patients do not experience symptoms until they have developed a serious condition such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.
If symptoms do exist, they may include the following:
- Jaundice in eyes and skin
- Mild to severe flu-like symptoms
- Abdominal discomfort
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Who is at risk for hepatitis C?
High risk factors for hepatitis C include:
- Drug users (through injection or the nose)
- Recipients of blood transfusion or transplantation prior to 1992
- Children born to hepatitis C-infected mothers
- Health care workers with needle-stick injuries
- People who have received tattoos from unlicensed tattoo parlors or received manicures and pedicures with tools that haven’t been properly sterilized and cleaned
Is there a vaccine?
Unfortunately, hepatitis C does not have a vaccine such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B. It can be effectively treated especially if it is discovered early.
How common is hepatitis C?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 17,000 new hepatitis C acute infections in the United States in 2007. Approximately 75 percent of people who become infected with hepatitis C virus develop a chronic disease (which affects more than 3.2 million Americans). In 2012, the CDC issued a recommendation that all baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C.
What new treatments are available for hepatitis C?
More than 40 new drugs are being tested for the treatment of hepatitis C in the United States. Mount Sinai offers patients clinical trials with interferon-free combinations, which are a new oral treatments without the side effects often associated with interferon.
What is HepCAP?
HepCAP is a program for uninsured individuals who have chronic hepatitis C. It is offered through the NYS Uninsured Care Programs to help chronic HCV-infected individuals access care and treatment.
To be eligible for HepCAP, you:
- Must be mono-infected with HCV and have a positive viral load
- Live in New York State (it does not matter if you are homeless or undocumented)
- Earn less than 435% of the Federal Poverty Level ($44,000 for a household of one; this is adjusted for each additional member of the household)
If you would like more information on HepCAP or would like to schedule a screening, please contact patient navigator Adrian Lopez at 212-824-7453.