Chronic Hepatitis C infection, from the Harvard Health Letter

The number of cases of Hepatitis C is down, but millions are chronically infected and may not know it, reports the September 2010 issue of The Harvard Health Letter.

Hepatitis C—sometimes shortened to "hep C"—is transmitted through blood. Before it was identified, it was spreading through blood transfusions, medical procedures such as kidney dialysis and organ transplantation, and needle sharing by intravenous drug users. The discovery of the virus meant that screening tests could be developed to find it. Diagnosis and treatment of the infection also became possible. Today, it is estimated that about 20,000 Americans are newly infected with hep C each year.

Hep C is not a conquered disease. Many infected people don't realize they have the disease, because of a lack of symptoms, or that they can spread it to others. Hep C can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, and about 10,000 Americans die each year from it. There's no vaccine, and the current treatments have bad side effects and aren't effective in many cases.

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