Hepatitis C rates in the United States soared to a 15-year high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week, but while the virus kills more Americans than any other infections disease reported to the CDC, now there’s a cure.
Hepatitis C was officially discovered and named in 1989. Up to 3.5 million Americans live with hepatitis C, and the majority of them are baby boomers. Because it is often asymptomatic, the only way to diagnose it is through a blood test.
“In general, it's a silent killer because you don't really know you have it,” hepatitis C patient Duncan MacInnes.
The virus can eventually lead to severe liver damage, cancer or cirrhosis, and death.
It is transmitted by blood -- transfusions or sharing dirty needles are two common ways to get it.
MacInnes believes he got it while working overseas for the State Department. He said a doctor used a dirty needle. A routine blood test showed something was wrong.
“At that time they didn't treat hepatitis C because they didn't have a handle on it,” he said.
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That has changed and health officials are urging diagnoses because there is a cure.
“Nowadays, hepatitis C is easily treated with one pill, once a day for eight to 24 weeks,” said Andrea Keller, a physician's assistant from MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute who has treated Duncan.
“In Duncan's case, he was one of our very first rounds, he was treated with DAAs, which are direct acting antivirals, where he needed two pills once a day for a period of 24 weeks,” Keller said.
In 2013, MacInnes was free of hepatitis C after many years of unsuccessful treatment.
“A new variety of antivirals that are direct acting that can interfere in the lifecycle of the virus by inserting themselves into the lifecycle of the virus,” MacInnes said. “Definitely a miracle drug.”
“Hep C used to be a death sentence for people when they were first diagnosed, similar to HIV when it was initially diagnosed, but now with new treatments and companies continuing to create new treatments, people are surviving much longer,” Keller.
With cases of hepatitis C being cured, the rate of liver transplants due to hepatitis C is going down and the liver disease concerning doctors is fatty liver disease, according to Dr. Rohit Satoskar of MedStar Georgetown.
“So fatty liver disease is where there is abnormal deposition of fat in the liver,” he said. “And that can occur from two different things. One, from excess alcohol use, though when we talk about fatty liver disease, we usually talk about non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, so these are people that don’t drink, but they have excess fat in the liver.”
Obesity is a leading cause. Satoskar said he believes up to 30 percent of the population has fatty liver disease.
Blood tests can help, and a FibroScan can test for liver damage and also for fatty liver disease, bypassing the need for a biopsy.