By Enyeribe Ejiogu
Hepatitis C is a very serious viral infection that damages the liver. When the liver is damaged by hepatitis C infection, it slowly stops working. The reason it takes long for the liver, which is the largest organ in body, to be crippled by hepatitis is that it is generally resistant to infection as it is able to rebuild its tissue.
Moreover, nature has made it in a such that the liver can continue to function as parts of its mass progressively get damaged until it finally packs up, unlike most other organs of the body that can be easily “captured” by an invading army of infections. Primarily for the fact that the very soft liver tissue that people love to eat as a delicacy (when taken from cattle, mind you) is hardy and a tough nut to crack, hepatitis C infection of this hardworking organ rarely causes symptoms. Incidentally, this makes it easy for the infected person not to know that his liver is facing a fire-on-the-mountain situation from hepatitis C attack. The question therefore is: how do you know when you have hepatitis C infection?
Very painfully, Nigeria continues to contend with absence of vital and reliable medical statistics on the prevalence of several diseases. But available records show that in the United States, up to 3.9 million Americans have Hepatitis C, and about 30,000 others get an acute infection every year.
Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States. Exposure to blood from an infected person increases your risk of catching Hepatitis C virus. Risk factors include intravenous drug use, HIV infection, hemodialysis, and having had a blood transfusion before 1982. Children born to mothers who have hepatitis C are also at higher risk of having the infection themselves.
It is important to note that non-viral hepatitis, that is benign liver inflammation, can also result from alcohol abuse, certain medications and other infections or autoimmune disorders.
Other factors that can also raise a person’s risk of catching the hepatitis C virus include overuse of drugs or alcohol, illnesses, medications, or even an immune disorder. Hepatitis C disease when not properly treated leads to emaciation (lose of weight) that is slightly similar to the type caused by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The liver is the body part most affected by hepatitis C. The word “hepatitis” simply means inflammation of the liver. The main function of the liver is to detoxify the blood and aid in the digestion of fats. It stores sugar in the form of glycogen, which is later released into the blood stream for transportation to the cells as need arises. It is also responsible for producing the essential components that make it possible for the blood to clot, thereby helping the body to repair wounds on the body. Without the clotting factors (clotting proteins) produced by the liver, a person could bleed to death. In essence, when the liver is damaged by hepatitis C, it slowly stops working as it should.
Hepatitis C virus can stay active in the body and slowly damage the liver over time. This is called chronic hepatitis C infection. As a result of the gradual damage being done to the liver, the infected person may develop cirrhosis, a condition in which most of the liver has been destroyed and becomes scar tissue.
First symptom of hepatitis C is a high fever
Hepatitis C usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. If it isn’t diagnosed, it can take as long as 30 years for serious signs of liver damage to develop. If you have hepatitis C, you can spread the virus even if you are not showing any symptoms.
However, some people, when they are first infected, can have symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, dark urine, yellowing of the skin and pain in the right upper part of the abdomen. These signs can be the signs of several other illnesses, and oftenstimes people may not take serious and therefore ignore them. For this reason it is best to see a doctor, who would recommend an appropriate laboratory test.
Adolescents are most likely to have hepatitis C
At a time when there is increasing incidence of early introduction to sexual intimacy, it is no surprise that the prevalence of hepatitis C infection is highest among young people, as research done in the United States has shown.
Through several studies it was discovered that the generation of Americans described as Baby boomers, that is people between 1945 and 1965 had the highest rates of hepatitis C. These people probably became infected in the ‘70s and ‘80s when hepatitis C rates were high and blood wasn’t screened as thoroughly as being done nowadays.
Moreover, the US Centres for Disease Control has always advised that anyone who has ever injected illegal drugs (narcotics) and had had blood transfusion before 1992, or with HIV or has abnormal liver function should be tested for Hepatitis C. All children born to hepatitis C-positive mothers should be tested. If you think you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C, talk to your doctor about getting tested.
Ways to get infected with hepatitis C
It isn’t easy to get infected with hepatitis C through sex, but there’s still a chance. An individual, who has multiple sex partners or whose partner has the disease, is very likely to get infected. That is why it is very important you use a latex condom to improve your chances of having safe sex. However, abstinence and marital fidelity are strongly advised.
But in the broader sense, it more likely to get hepatitis C if you share needles or other equipment to inject drugs, or if you are a healthcare provider and get an injury from a needle contaminated with blood from a patient with hepatitis C.
Nigerian adolescents and other adults have developed a love for tattoos and body piercing. They need to understand getting tattoos and having piercings can put a person at risk of hepatitis C infection.
However, getting a tattoo or having body piercings done at regulated or licenced facilities drastically reduces the chance of getting hepatitis C. It therefore goes without saying that tattoos or piercings done with non-sterile instruments can spread hepatitis C.
If you have to get a tattoo or piercing, look for a facility that has an established practice of single-use of all items such as gloves, needles, and ink pots. The shop should properly dispose of all items that have touched blood, use a disinfecting solution to clean the work area, and sterilize reusable tools. If you live in Lagos and want to have a tattoo or body piercing, you should particularly to see that the LAWMA Medical Waste logo is prominently displayed outside the walls of the premises and within the reception area. That should indicate to you that the facility is regulated by the Lagos State.
Hepatitis C is non-vaccine preventable
Vaccines exist against hepatitis A and B, but there isn’t one for hepatitis C. To keep from getting infected, avoid contact with other people’s blood. Don’t share personal items like razors and toothbrushes, especially with someone who has hepatitis C.
It is noteworthy that hepatitis C cannot be spread by hugging, kissing, coughing, sneezing, or breastfeeding. Unlike hepatitis A, you can’t get hepatitis C from food or water.
More than 75 to 85 per cent of people who are infected with hepatitis C become chronically infected. Without treatment, they will have hepatitis C their whole lives. The sooner hepatitis C is diagnosed and you can begin treatment, the better your chance to prevent more liver damage.
Hepatitis C can be treated with medication
Treatment of hepatitis C has undergone a revolutionary change with the development of direct-acting antivirals (DAAs). If your body doesn’t spontaneously clear a hepatitis C infection in 6 months, you are eligible for treatment.
DAAs are safer and more effective than older treatments for many people and have fewer side effects. They are now also available in pills that contain more than one drug that makes treatment easier. Please don’t engage in self-medication, go to a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. If you have hepatitis C, ask your doctor before taking any prescription or nonprescription medicines, supplements, or vitamins. And don’t drink alcohol because it can speed up liver damage.
Even after successful treatment, you can still be infected again with hepatitis C. The chance is lower, but the risk is still real.
► With additional material from webmd.com.