BY NICOLE VERDUIN
Roughly 2.7 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C, but according to Lorraine Kowalski, adjunct faculty member at The County College of Morris and member of the Regional Chronic Disease Coalition of Morris and Somerset, that number could be staggeringly low.
“Currently approximately 4 million people in the U.S. have undiagnosed Hepatitis C, mostly in the age range of 18- 45,” Kowalski said. “The illness lies dormant without symptoms for years, but damage is happening leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer creating a great burden on the health care system.”
Kowalski said that initially most people thought that like Hepatitis A and B, C only came from drug use needles, sex or transfusions prior to 1992, and that there was a vaccine for it.
“For Hep C there is no vaccine as yet. There is treatment available to stop the progression if one is tested, found positive and seeks treatment,” Kowalski said.
The Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is spread mainly through contact with infected blood, and in rare cases, through sexual interaction. One of the easiest ways for the virus to spread is through unclean needles used in tattoos, piercings, and injecting drugs. While contracting the virus can result in either acute or chronic cases of the illness, neither case typically produces distinct symptoms, Kowalski said. In cases of acute Hepatitis C, 15-25 percent of all cases, the illness is short term, and the body is able to spontaneously clear the virus in about six months. The remaining 75-85 percent of Hepatitis C cases develop into chronic illness.
Kowalski said that in these cases, the virus’s effects can move beyond liver inflammation, and lead to cirrhosis or even cancer of the liver. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, 60-70 percent of chronic cases lead to cirrhosis of the liver. Once diagnosed, there are limited treatment options for the patient. The most common method involves the injection of pegylated interferons and ribavirin. Pegylated interferons ultimately mimic the body’s natural response to the virus, and make it easier to deliver the ribavirin to the necessary cells. Ribavirin is a drug that inhibits mRNA synthesis, essentially stopping the virus’s ability to multiply and spread. Recently, clinical trials of new antiviral medication have been implemented with a growing success rate. Chemotherapy treatments have also been used to treat extreme cases.
Kowalski said that CCM students fall into an at-risk age range that primarily goes untested.
“The age range we are focusing on to get tested, 18-45 years old is because so many of this group have not been educated to the additional risky behaviors of body piercing (ears, tongue, etc.) and tattoos,” Kowalski said. “Only recently have these establishments been monitored in New Jersey regarding sterility of needles used to perform these procedures.”
Students like Nicole Trebour, who has a tattoo, may have unknowingly put themselves at risk.
“When I got my first tattoo at 18, I was actually really nervous,” Trebour said.
In recent years, there has been a spike in the number of Hepatitis C cases reported. From 2012 to 2013, the number of acute cases reported jumped from 1,778 to 2,138.
“There has been an increase in Hep C diagnosis in the last years but not in the 18-45 age range, because they think they are indestructible, engage in the risky behaviors and still do not get tested,” Kowalski said. “The CCM age group is important to reach because they think they are not vulnerable.”
Unlike other forms of the Hepatitis virus, such as A and B, there are currently no vaccinations to prevent Hepatitis C. Due to the lack of preventative medicine, it is therefore vitally important to get tested for the virus regularly. The required blood test can be performed by a doctor, or most Planned Parenthood and similar clinics.