Published on: July 6, 2020
Dr. Philip Styne is a gastroenterologist and volunteer physician at Shepherd’s Hope, a health clinic in Orlando that exists to provide care for uninsured and low-income patients. He noticed that a significant number of his patients had Hepatitis C so he decided to open a weekly clinic to better treat them.
“The point is that these people really suffer, and they’re very expensive to take care of. So if we can eliminate hepatitis C, we can make people healthier and eliminate long-term costs,” spoke Styne. He was not the only doctor to notice that Hepatitis C in Florida is on the rise. And while it has a cure, the damage it can cause before it’s ever discovered cannot be ignored.
In 2016, Florida reported almost 30,000 cases of Hepatitis C. Among the chronic cases, 47% were 50 years of age or older, while 19% were young people aged 30 or below. In acute, or recent, cases, the number of infected young people ballooned up to 37%. These statistics could be seen as a grim consequence of the opioid epidemic, as injection drug use among young people has increased.
The rise of Hepatitis C in the Tampa Bay area has prompted multiple clinics in Pinellas County to offer free testing and education. The Tampa / St. Pete metro area is a high-risk area for new HIV infections, making the spread of Hepatitis C even more dangerous.
With enough knowledge and understanding, we can all help reduce the number of cases in Tampa Bay and beyond, and keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe.
The difference between Acute Hepatitis C and Chronic Hepatitis C
There are two types of Hepatitis C: acute and chronic.
Acute Hepatitis C is a viral infection that only lasts for a short amount of time, weeks to several months. Common symptoms of acute infection include fatigue and vomiting, though frequently the disease causes no symptoms at all. It’s been estimated that only 5-50% of infected adults are aware of their status.
Acute Hepatitis C is by no means less important than chronic; in fact, its asymptomatic nature means many won’t realize they have it until they’ve already spread it to others. This infection may improve and even resolve without treatment, though more often than not (75-85% of the time) it will lead to chronic infection.
Chronic Hepatitis C is the long-lasting stage of the disease. Common symptoms include fatigue, mild cognitive issues, stomach upset, loss of appetite, joint/muscle pain, and after a period of years can lead to signs of liver damage such as jaundice, dark yellow urine, pale stool, bruising easily, and swelling in the abdomen, legs, and/or ankles.
If left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, permanent damage, or even death. It is a major cause of cirrhosis, the most common reason for liver transplants, and is responsible for more than 18,000 deaths in 2016 alone, according to the CDC.
Each year following chronic infection, 3-6% will experience liver failure, and 1-5% liver cancer. These risks only increase for patients who are 50+ years old, male, alcohol users, immunocompromised, have fatty liver disease, Hepatitis B, or other risk factors.
How you can protect yourself and others
Hepatitis C is most often transmitted through direct contact with infected blood. Saliva and sexual bodily fluids can also transmit the disease; however this is less common. Kissing, holding hands, sneezing, coughing, and hugging someone with Hepatitis C carries little to no risk of infection.
Acts that carry high risk of infection include sharing needles, the use of unsterilized equipment, sharing personal hygiene products such as razors or toothbrushes, engaging in sexual activity without condoms or dental dams, or having a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992 or receiving clotting factors before 1987.
Preventative care is always preferable to treatment. It’s recommended for all adults to be tested routinely, especially:
- Pregnant women during each pregnancy
- People who have ever shared needles, syringes, or other drug preparation equipment, whether recently or many years ago, and regularly if drug use is ongoing
- People with abnormal ALT levels in blood (ALT is an enzyme made by liver)
- Prison inmates
- People who received tattoos or piercings without sterile tools
- People with HIV
If you have tested positive for Hepatitis C, the most important first step is to speak with your doctor about the disease and its treatment. With treatment >95% of cases of chronic Hepatitis C are cured. Seek out a support system, whether through family, loved ones, or a support group.
IDATB is here for you
If you have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, we can assist with your evaluation, treatment and monitoring. Hep C treatment is now very effective and well tolerated. Most people can be cured of their Hepatitis C in a relatively short period of time.
Our staff is experienced in contacting insurance companies to get approval for medications to treat Hepatitis C. Don’t delay getting treated for Hepatitis C in Florida; call our offices today. If you are feeling unwell or have noticed any of the above symptoms, then please contact us at 813-251-8444.