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Declaring war on Hepatitis-C

| May 8, 2012 1:01 AM

Hepatitis Awareness Month may not be until next week, but Marci Johnson, the Communicable Diseases Coordinator of the Lincoln County Health Department, is already getting ready to take on the viral infectious disease head-on.

“By mid-May we will begin our screening program,” Johnson said Tuesday evening. “Hepatitis can lay dormant for years and then a positive screening can result. We’re looking for those people who may have been exposed.”

Johnson was reluctant to cite specific numbers, but said “for every known case of Hepatitis, there are two undetected cases.”

Johnson said recent positive testings have resulted in the distribution of condoms at area pubs as the Communicable Diseases Department sought grant funding for the May screenings.

Johnson said if persons believe they may have been exposed to a Hepatitis virus, they should seek a screening.

For those who are high-risk for Hepatitis-C, the Lincoln County Public Health Department will be offering Hepatitis-C screening. 

The tests are free; involve only a finger-stick with results in less than 30 minutes. 

   In Libby screenings are being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 14 and 15  at the Health Department. 

   In Troy a screening is scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. May 23 at the Troy Volunteer Ambulance station. 

  Aided with a grant from the Montana Board of Health, Johnson is planning to offer regional screenings in Libby, Troy and Eureka. Those screenings, Johnson said, will be announced later, when testing kits become available.

  “If a person tests positive, that just means they have a Hepatitis anti-body. We then will refer them to a provider,” Johnson said.

  Hepatitis refers to the inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and particular bacterial infections can all cause Hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections (caused by a virus) that affect the liver.

    In the U.S. there are primarily three kinds of viral Hepatitis-A, B, and C all caused by different kinds of viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. 

  Johnson said Hepatitis can be (acute), lasting a few weeks but is possible to become (chronic) long-term illness that may be lifelong. It is estimated that 3.5 million to as many as 5 million Americans are living with chronic viral Hepatitis — Hepatitis-B or Hepatitis-C. 

   Many do not know that they are infected, placing them at a greater risk for severe, even fatal complications from the disease, and increasing the likelihood that they will spread the virus to others. 

   Hepatitis-A is the less severe. The primary means of Hepatitis-A transmission in this country is by the feces of an infected person contaminating something that is ingested. (For example an infected person does not wash their hands after using the restroom and handles food.) Hepatitis-A does not become chronic and usually resolves without treatment.

    Hepatitis-B is transmitted through activities that involve puncture through the skin, or mucosal contact with infectious blood or body fluids (semen or saliva). Common means of transmission includes sex with an infected partner, IV drug use, birth to an infected mother, contact with blood or open sores of an infected person, and sharing items such as razors or toothbrushes with an infected person. 

   The risk for chronic infection of Hepatitis B varies according to the age at the time of infection and is greatest among young children. Approximately 90 percent of infants and 25 to 50 percent of children age 1 to 5 years will remain chronically infected after contacting Hepatitis-B. 

   By contrast, approximately 95 percent of adults recover completely and do not become chronically infected. Some high-risk persons for Hepatitis B are those who are born to infected mothers, sex partners of infected persons, injection drug users, household contacts of persons with Hepatitis-B infections, and healthcare workers with occupational exposure to blood or body fluids.

   The majority of people (approximately 75 to 85 percent who become infected with Hepatitis-C virus develop chronic infection.  

   Approximately 15 to 25 percent of people who get Hepatitis-C will clear the virus from their bodies without treatment and will not develop chronic infection. 

   Experts do not fully understand why this happens for some people. In recent years, U.S. death rates attributed to chronic Hepatitis-C have outpaced death rates due to HIV infection. It is the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the United States and the leading cause of liver transplants. 

   Hep-C can lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) liver failure, or liver cancer. Those with Hepatitis-C should discuss treatment options with a doctor who treats hepatitis. They should be evaluated for treatment, however, not every person with chronic Hepatitis-C needs or will benefit from treatment.

   Hepatitis-C is spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis-C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Before1992, (the beginning of screening for Hepatitis in donated blood and organs); Hepatitis-C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. 

   Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis-C virus by sharing needles and related equipment to inject drugs. People can become infected with the Hepatitis-C virus during such activities as sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes. Transmission of Hepatitis-C (and other infectious diseases) is possible when poor infection-control practices are used during tattooing or piercing.

   If Hepatitis-C virus is spread within a household, it is most likely a result of direct, through-the-skin exposure to the blood of an infected household member. Having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis-C virus, is not a common means of transmission. It is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or water.

   High risk persons for Hepatitis-C are those that currently use IV drugs, have used IV drugs in the past (even if it was just one time or years ago), have HIV infection, have been exposed to blood through a needle-stick or received donated blood or organs before 1992.

  If you think you may have been exposed to a Hepatitis virus, talk to your healthcare provider about being tested. 

For those that are high-risk for Hepatitis-C, the Lincoln County Public Health Department will be offering Hepatitis-C screening. 

For more information about the testing or Hepatitis or if you are unable to make this screening but wish to be tested, Johnson at the Lincoln County Public Health Department at 293-4121.