Hepatitis C might seem like a disease that doesn’t affect the average person, but according to the Centers for the Disease Control, there are more than four million Americans suffering from chronic Hepatitis C right now. Thousands of these patients are being cared for in the Scott & White Healthcare system.
While the majority of these cases come from sharing needles and unsafe sexual encounters, Scott & White chief of Hepatology section, Dawn Sears, MD, said that baby boomers are also one of the most at-risk populations when it comes to Hepatitis C.
Because the medical community and the public at large didn’t have the knowledge we have today about how diseases are spread, baby boomers (people born between 1945 and 1965) could have been exposed without ever knowing it.
“It could have been an IV that wasn’t sterile, a needle that was reused, a tattoo given with a dirty needle or a blood transfusion before 1992,” Dr. Sears said.
The disease, which begins as a virus, is contracted through blood or body fluid exposure. It lives in the liver and can cause chronic illness and scarring of the liver. And if patients don’t know they’ve been exposed, the disease could be doing damage to their bodies for decades without being detected.
“It rarely has any symptoms, and is usually stumbled upon when the patient is being screened for something else,” the doctor said.
Dr. Sears said often times a physician will test a patient’s liver levels before prescribing a cholesterol medication and notice that their levels are high. Upon further investigation with a Hepatitis C panel, the physician discovers that the patient has been living with the disease for years.
“Right now the CDC recommends that every baby boomer in America be screened with a one-time screening,” she said. “One in 30 baby boomers have the disease and only 25 percent of them know they have it.”
While having Hepatitis C is not always that bad, when combined with an unhealthy lifestyle like drinking alcohol or eating high-fat meals, the disease can quickly become a major health concern.
“You can end up with cirrhosis of the liver, and once you have cirrhosis you have a four percent chance each year of developing liver cancer,” Dr. Sears said.
The disease is so prevalent in Central Texas, that the chief of Hepatology section devotes her entire practice to treating and caring for patients suffering from Hepatitis C.
But the good news, Dr. Sears said, is that the fight against this disease is about to get easier with the help of new drugs hitting the market soon.
“The old therapy for Hepatitis C included Interferon shots that have incredible side effects including fevers, chills, body aches, and effects on red blood cells, white blood cells, the thyroid and all sorts of things. It is so miserable for some people that they can’t always work full-time,” the doctor said. “That is gone. We are introducing pills that have hardly any side effects.”
The new therapy has a 90 percent cure rate compared to a 50 percent cure rate with the old therapy. And the new drugs will also be safe for patients who weren’t considered stable enough to undergo the previous treatments.
“Now we can treat people before they go in for a liver transplant, at the time of liver transplant, and those with kidney disease, autoimmune disease and psychiatric disease,” she said.
Right now, Scott & White hepatologists have transitioned almost all of their patients from shots to pills. And once a new pill is released in the coming months, the doctors hope to have 100 percent of their patients on pills to treat chronic Hepatitis C.
Although the new treatments look promising, Dr. Sears said that patients suffering from Hepatitis C can’t be helped unless they know they have the disease.
“Every baby boomer should be screened for Hepatitis C,” she said. “Knowing if you have it will empower you to do something about it.”