A fair number of my patients screen positive for the Hepatitis C virus. Obviously, they want to know what a positive screening test means, and what they should do next. Since a positive screen doesn’t necessarily mean an infection with Hep C, I’d like to explain more about this test, about the virus, and what’s new in the treatment of Hep C.
Hepatitis C is a virus that mainly affects the liver, as its name implies. There are other viruses that affect the liver, creatively named Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and so on. But Hepatitis C is the biggie, with an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. with the infection. In fact, it’s the most common chronic blood-borne viral infection in the U.S. Around the world, 180 million people are estimated to be infected with Hep C.
Anyone with a history of intravenous drug use should be screened for hepatitis C. In the U.S., this is the most common way of contracting the virus. Even if you didn’t share needles, if you shared cookers, water, spoons or other material, you may have contracted the virus. Even people who shared straws to snort drugs appear to be at risk, and should be tested.
It’s a blood-borne illness, so it can also be transmitted through tattoos with unclean needles, re-used medical supplies, and blood transfusion with tainted blood. However, risks of infection through transfusion in the U.S. are very low since testing for the virus became available in 1992.
Most people who have hepatitis C got it from another person’s blood, but it can be transmitted through sex. In monogamous couples with one infected partner, the virus is transmitted to the uninfected partner in only about 1 – 5% of cases. However, multiple sexual partners and high risk sexual activities result in higher transmission rates. You can’t transmit Hep C by hugging, kissing, sharing eating utensils or ordinary household contact, though a person with Hep C shouldn’t share razors or toothbrushes.
In May of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended one-time testing for Hepatitis C in all baby boomers, meaning people born between 1945 and 1965. About one in thirty baby boomers have hepatitis C, according to the CDC. Because newer treatments can cure chronic Hep C infection, the CDC hopes to save an estimated 120,000 lives by uncovering infections in people who don’t know they’re infected.
The screening test for Hep C is relatively inexpensive, and screens only for antibodies to the Hepatitis C virus. If you screen positive with this test, it means you have been exposed to the Hep C virus. It does not tell us if you have chronic Hepatitis C infection. Up to 20% of people who contract Hepatitis C infections are able to clear the virus on their own, and will not have chronic infection. However, they will remain positive on this screening test, because they will carry antibodies against the virus for the rest of their lives. Patients diagnosed, treated, and cured of Hep C infection will also remain positive for Hep C on this antibody screening test, so it’s not helpful to screen these patients again. In fact, it may be confusing if the provider doesn’t understand what this antibody test means, and explain it adequately to patients.
There are six specific types, called genotypes, of Hepatitis C. Even if you clear the infection to one genotype, you can be re-infected with another genotype of hepatitis C. If you have active Hep C and continue to share needles, it’s possible to become infected with more than one subtype.
There’s no vaccine available for Hep C like there is for Hep A and B. Much like HIV, the Hep C virus undergoes frequent changes, so it’s like making a vaccine against a moving target.
If you test positive on screening for Hep C, you need to have further testing to see if you have Hepatitis C infection. The next step is a qualitative test for hepatitis C. At around $100 at the cheapest, it’s difficult for patients without insurance to afford the proper testing. If this qualitative test is positive, you should then see a specialist to see if you need a liver biopsy. Most specialists base the decision to treat on a liver biopsy. There are other tests, but biopsy is still the gold standard.
If treatment is contemplated, it will be necessary to have genotype testing, to find out what specific type of Hep C you have. Treatments are different for different subtypes. Two new medications are used in the treatment of type 1, the most frequent type in the U.S., and give cure rates up to 75%. On the other hand, genotypes 2 and 3 are more easily treated and don’t require treatment to be as long as type 1. Quantitative Hep C testing, called viral counts, isn’t needed unless treatment is going to be done, when it is used to follow the response to treatment. Outside of that, the viral count provides little information.
Liver function tests, called LFT’s, are relatively cheap, and are often done at the same time as the first Hep C screening test. If they are elevated, it usually means there’s inflammation in the liver. Many things can cause an increase in LFTs. Alcohol is the most common cause, but all viral hepatitis infections can cause elevations too. However, it’s possible to have normal LFT’s and still have active Hepatitis C. We can’t assume you don’t have Hep C infection even if your LFT’s are normal.
If you have Hepatitis C, you should NEVER drink alcohol. Even patients infected with Hep C but with no problems on liver biopsy will go downhill fast if they drink alcohol. The dangers of alcohol in patients with Hep C cannot be overstated. Don’t. Drink. Ever. Not even a cold beer after mowing the lawn.
In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the exciting new treatment developments.