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Conquering Hepatitis C

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Conquering Hepatitis C

Millions of Americans are walking around with hepatitis C and don’t know it. It’s called a “silent epidemic” because people can be infected for decades and have no idea. This Harvard Medical School Guide was created to inform you about the different types of hepatitis C infections and how they can harm the liver. You'll discover who is most at risk for this disease, how to prevent it, and how hepatitis C is diagnosed and treated.

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Have you seen the TV ads telling you that if you’re a baby boomer, you may have hepatitis C? That’s an important message, because you could be carrying this virus, which inflames and damages the liver, and yet have no signs or symptoms of it. In fact, you may have contracted the infection and had no clue as to how it happened. Without treatment, it eventually could lead to irreversible liver damage.

One in 30 baby boomers has hepatitis C. Put another way, three in four people (75%) with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965. They’re five times more likely than people born in other years to have hepatitis C. These individuals were likely infected in the 1960s through 1980s, when infection control measures weren’t as tight as they are today. That’s because the hepatitis C virus wasn’t even discovered until 1989, and donated blood wasn’t screened for the virus until 1992.

If not treated, people with chronic (long-term) hepatitis C are at risk for cirrhosis, a disease in which the liver gets scarred and can no longer function normally, as well as liver cancer and even death. In 2016, 18,153 death certificates in the United States listed hepatitis C as an underlying or contributing cause of death. Until recently, chronic hepatitis C was the No. 1 reason for liver transplants.

Today, most new cases are related to injectable drug use. You can get the virus even if you inject only once but use a contaminated needle or syringe. If you are in a high-risk group, it’s important to ask your doctor about testing.

This report was created to inform you about the different types of hepatitis C infections and how they can harm the liver. We’ll describe who is most at risk for this disease, how to prevent it, and how hepatitis C is diagnosed and treated. Over the past decade, the FDA has approved several drugs known as direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) that work dramatically better than previous treatments. Although expensive, they cure most people and can prevent further liver, kidney, and other organ damage caused by hepatitis C. Curing the infection can greatly improve your health and extend your life.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Raymond T. Chung, MD Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School Director of Hepatology and Liver Center, Vice Chief, Gastroenterology Division, Massachusetts General Hospital. (2019)

About Harvard Medical School Guides

Harvard Medical School Guides delivers compact, practical information on important health concerns. These publications are smaller in scope than our Special Health Reports, but they are written in the same clear, easy-to-understand language, and they provide the authoritative health advice you expect from Harvard Health Publishing.

  •  What is hepatitis C?
  • Hepatitis C and your liver
  • Acute versus chronic infection
  • Conditions caused by hepatitis C
  • How does hepatitis C spread?
  • Who gets hepatitis C?
  • Who should be tested?
  • How can hepatitis C be prevented?
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment: Acute or chronic infection?
  • Treatment: Direct-acting antivirals
  • Resources

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