WASHINGTON — It is a virus that kills more people each year than AIDS, and yet most know little about it: Hepatitis C.
The virus can lie undetected in the body for decades. If it turns chronic, the results can be deadly.
“Chronic Hepatitis C leads to cirrhosis of the liver,” says Niel Constantine, Ph.D, a professor and infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland’s Instutute of Human Virology. The virus has also been linked to liver cancer. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hepatitis C infection is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
An estimated 5 million Americans have Hepatitis C; 3 million have the chronic form of the disease.
It is usually passed by contact with someone who has infected blood. Injection -drug users are at risk, but so are health-care workers who might accidentally prick themselves with a needle stick.
Babies born to mothers with Hepatitis C have been known to pick up the disease. And in some cases it has been transmitted through sexual contact, though that is not the norm.
Like AIDS, it can be the result of risky behavior. And Constantine says that a lot of people who have HIV also have the Hepatitis C virus. At the Institute of Human Virology’s Baltimore clinic, the overlap is about 70 percent.
Many of those who show up for testing and treatment are baby boomers who grew up in an era when IV drug use was at its height and blood products were not routinely screened.
About 20 percent of those who acquire the virus will have no problems. But the other 80 percent can go on to develop a potential killer that Constantine says “can be silent for many years.”
The trick is to detect the virus before it becomes deadly. There are tests available, and an effort is under way to make them simpler and more cost efficient. There are also ever-improving treatments, although the high cost of some of the new drugs has created controversy.
But the first step is to get the word out about the disease, and get people tested before it’s too late.
“We need to go out in the communities and educate people,” says Constantine, adding, “this has been shown to be effective for HIV; this is what we need for Hepatitis C.”