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What is hepatitis C?

According to the CDC, 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 is caused by infection by 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.”

Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

While there are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Also, if a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

As with many other diseases and conditions, hepatitis C disproportionately affects the black community. In fact:

  • 75% of those with HCV are unaware of their status
  • African American boomers are twice as likely to have hepatitis C than other baby boomers

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Hepatitis C can be spread by:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings
  • Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C

Less commonly, the virus can be spread by:

  • Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • Having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus

According to Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) and the current SVP of Government and External Affairs at OraSure Technologies, there are three additional facts that blacks need to know about the best to protect themselves:

Get Tested

“It’s a fact that African Americans are disproportionately affected by hepatitis C (HCV),” says Fraser-Howze. “In the general population, 55% to 85% of individuals exposed to HCV become chronically infected. This rate is much higher in African Americans (87% to 95%). The most important thing that we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones is to understand the risk factors for hepatitis C and to get tested. Hepatitis C is a manageable condition when treated, but some individuals don’t show symptoms for years after being infected. Testing is now quick and easy, and only requires a finger prick with the only FDA approved rapid test, the OraQuick® HCV Rapid Antibody test. You can find out if you’re infected in 20 minutes and be immediately linked to care.”

Understand Why Boomers Are At Special Risk

More than 75% of those infected with hepatitis C are baby boomers, defined as people born from 1945 through 1965,” Fraser-Howze explains. “African-American boomers are twice as likely to have hepatitis C than other baby boomers. Most boomers are believed to have acquired hepatitis C in the 1970s and 1980s when rates of infection were the highest. Since people with hepatitis C can live for decades without symptoms, many are unknowingly living with an infection they contracted many years ago. Remember that hepatitis C is primarily spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Many baby boomers could have contracted the disease from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992 and universal precautions were adopted.”

Understand How To Stay Healthy If You DO Have Hepatitis C

The most important step that those with hepatitis C can do to remain healthy is first to know your status by getting tested and second, for those who test positive, to get connected to care,” says Fraser-Howze. “With new technology, you can now test and get results in just 20 minutes and if positive for the virus, there are now new therapies available that can effectively cure a high percentage of people with hepatitis C infection. Getting connected to a doctor or healthcare professional can help you get the treatment you need, and can help you live a longer, healthier life. They can also tell you what steps you can take to protect others from infection.”