For World Hepatitis Day, Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Alexandra Buzea about hepatitis C — how the infection manifests, what treatments are available, and how to fight harmful stereotypes and misinformation about this illness.
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, the yearly day of awareness of hepatitis, a viral infection that affects the liver. It can result from different strains of the hepatitis virus: A, B, C, D, or E.
Hepatitis C infections are some of the most common that affect the liver. They are caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Globally, HCV affected an estimated 71 million people in 2015, and between 2013 and 2016, about 2.4 million people in the United States were living with HCV infections.
If a person does not receive a diagnosis and treatment, an HCV infection can become chronic, leading to a risk of cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver.
Because initial symptoms of an HCV infection can go undiagnosed for a long time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now advise “one-time hepatitis C testing of all adults (18 years and older) and all pregnant women during every pregnancy.”
To better understand how HCV infections manifest, what treatment options there are, and how to combat harmful stereotypes about the condition, MNT has spoken with Dr. Alexandra Buzea.
Dr. Buzea is a vascular surgeon with additional experience in liver, or hepatic, transplantation affiliated with the Ponderas Academic Hospital, in Bucharest, Romania.
We have lightly edited the interview transcript for clarity.
HCV cannot be contracted through hugging, ‘so hug away!’
MNT: What is hepatitis C, and what are its effects on health?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: HCV is a well-known virus that can affect the liver, both in an acute form and in chronic form. HCV can lead to hepatitis — characterized by inflammation of the liver cells — ranging from a mild form lasting a few weeks to a lifelong disease.
What people need to understand is that this virus, although highly curable, if left untreated, becomes one of the main causes of cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Most people do not exhibit any symptoms, but a few “unlucky” ones may experience fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and even jaundice.
MNT: How can a person contract HCV?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: The most common way of becoming infected is through exposure to infected blood. A small quantity of it is enough for someone to contract the virus.
Although the most cited means of infection are through intravenous drug use, unsafe injection practices, contaminated blood transfusions or blood products, or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, sometimes a small cut on the finger will suffice.
We should also mention other, less common ways of contracting HCV, like unsafe sexual practices or through birth. A mother who has contracted HCV can pass it on to her baby, but not through breast milk.
Hepatitis C is also not transmitted through sharing food or water with an infected person or through hugging them, but small gestures such as these can help them feel loved and safe in their community and help them recover faster — so hug away!
MNT: What are some therapeutic options?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: Unfortunately, there is no vaccine available at the moment, but there are a few treatment options, and, of course, prevention plays a key role in medical practice.
Antiviral medication, pangenotypic direct-acting antivirals, can cure up to 95% of patients. We have to be aware that only about 30% of patients clear the virus spontaneously in 6 months and do not require treatment.
The rest will develop a chronic infection and will need antiviral medication, usually over 12–24 weeks, depending on the presence or absence of cirrhosis.
For people already infected with HCV, immunization with the hepatitis A and B vaccines is crucial in preventing co-infection and protecting the liver.
‘People need to be more empathetic and minimize the stigma’
MNT: Studies such as this one, published in Public Health Reports in 2016, suggest that baby boomers are the generation with the highest rate of HCV infections. Why is that?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: HCV infections occur worldwide, but depending on the country, the virus can be concentrated in certain populations and, yes, even in certain age groups.
A few factors to blame could be infection control practices that were historically insufficient in HCV infection, the generation’s low compliance with screening, misinformation, the fear of disease — any disease — and the fact that, in many countries, the genotype distribution remains unknown.
Also, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms after infection, or [they] experience general ones, such as fatigue, fever, or nausea, that do not prompt them to seek medical attention right away.
MNT: There are many harmful myths about HCV infections, such as the belief that they are incurable. How might the media and healthcare organisations fight such disinformation and encourage people to seek treatment and support?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: Healthcare organizations can fight disinformation only through the help of mass media. Any means of communication is encouraged — newspapers, TV, radio, social media apps… even smoke signals, if that leads to a higher understanding of diseases.
However, the information sources must be reliable. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the CDC are trustworthy and offer helpful explanations.
Taking the advice of a neighbor who recommends a tea because they used it and it “helped with liver problems” is not the best idea, because it can delay access to a treatment plan and affect the patient’s general health status.
Our collaborators in public relations carry the burden of developing informative campaigns that reach a broad spectrum of audiences.
I believe that understanding the implications of HCV infections motivates people to seek medical attention and screening, even in the absence of any symptoms.
MNT: Is there anything else you would like to mention to our readers, as we draw to a close?
Dr. Alexandra Buzea: I just want to point out that having an HCV infection is not a death sentence.
It is highly curable, as long as people know about it and seek care from healthcare specialists. As soon as we can diagnose it, we can treat it.
There are therapy options, even in more advanced phases of the disease — hepatic transplant is becoming more and more accessible, and antiviral treatments are increasingly affordable.
People need to be more empathetic with those who have HCV infections and minimize the stigma — if society would stop seeing it as a “shameful” disease, maybe more people would seek help for it without the fear of becoming outcasts.