In the first four months of the year, Franklin County already reported 63 percent of the number of Hepatitis C cases identified in 2012, significantly more than in other years, Midge Ransom, Franklin County health department director, said.
“I can’t tell you how many cases of Hep C that we have found positive in Franklin County, but I can tell you we are seeing more cases now than in previous years,” she said. “And on a weekly basis, they’re being identified.”
Among the number of Hepatitis C cases, 75 percent of the cases belong to Baby Boomers, those people born between 1945 and 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The high number of cases might largely be because of the lack of blood screening done on blood transfusions for Hepatitis C before 1992, Ransom said.
“One reason is there was a time period where transfusions weren’t tested routinely for Hep C,” she said. “Another is injected drug use. Quite a few people sharing needles and things like that.”
Ransom said the health department has been urging Baby Boomers to get tested for the disease, since most times the symptoms associated with the virus aren’t visible.
“The virus can live in your body for years without causing problems or symptoms, then all of a sudden the damage is already done,” she said. “Hep C is a precursor to liver cancer.”
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic,” according to the CDC’s website.
If caught early enough, Hepatitis C can be treated and managed, Ransom said. With symptoms often being invisible, testing for Hepatitis C can greatly increase one’s ability to stop further liver damage.
“With treatment, a lot of people can live with it and do well with treatment,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons people need to be aware.”
Hepatitis C can be spread a number of ways, Ransom said. It’s not just a drug-related problem, but sharing needles with someone infected is a sure way to contract the virus.
“Tattooing,” she said. “If people aren’t using fresh ink and haven’t been, the ink could be contaminated so it could be spread through tattooing.”
The CDC’s website lists past drug injection users, current drug injection users, recipients of donated blood, blood products and organs, people who received a blood product for clotting problems made before 1987, hemodialysis patients or persons who spent many years on dialysis for kidney failure, people who received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments, HIV-infected persons, and children born to mothers infected with the Hepatitis C virus as people with an increased risk of having Hepatitis C and whom should be tested for the virus.
The Franklin County health department offers testing for Hepatitis C, but Ransom said it’s best to speak with a physician provider first on testing and treatment options.
“The first test tests whether antibodies exist in the blood, which means you’ve contracted Hepatitis C and your body has built up resistance to it,” she said. “But [the first test] doesn’t confirm [the virus] is active without second test. If someone does test positive, then there’s a follow-up test for the active disease.”
The virus can live dormant in the body for weeks or even years without showing symptoms, Ransom said, but if symptoms do occur, a test for the virus should be done immediately.
“It causes liver problems,” she said. “The symptoms would be nausea, vomiting, fever, weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin), dark urine and abdominal pain.”
Ransom said many people don’t have enough knowledge about the Hepatitis C virus, how it’s contracted, how to test for it and why to test for it, but she’s hoping that changes.
“Share the word with other people,” she said. “The best way to get people to participate in prevention is for people to talk about and encourage others to be tested.”
Since Hepatitis C is spread through blood interactions, people shouldn’t worry about catching it via sneezing or coughing.
“Hep C is not typically transmitted by sharing water glasses and towels,” she said. “It’s not spread by casual contact like that.”
To stop the spread of the virus, people must first know they have it, she said.
“It’s a serious disease. If we know they have it, they can prevent spreading it to someone else,” she said. “Knowledge is power.”