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June 28, 2000

Texas Department of Health Answers the Question - Who Should Be Tested for Hepatitis C?

The scenario is frightening - a virus causing a disease of the liver lurks in the body, sometimes for decades without symptoms. The treatment is difficult - injections three times a week for 6-12 months, often resulting in strong side effects. The long-term results of infection for some can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, a transplant or even death. This is hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood borne infection and the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States. In this environment it is not surprising that there is a lot of misleading information resulting in confusion. That is why the facts are so important.

"Hepatitis C is a virus spread by direct contact with infected blood. We encourage people to get tested for the virus if they have ever used injection drugs not prescribed by a doctor, or if they received dialysis, or had a blood transfusion or solid organ transplant before 1992 when blood was first screened for hepatitis C," said Sharilyn K. Stanley, M.D., Associate Commissioner of Disease Control and Prevention with  the Texas Department of Health (TDH).

In addition, persons with hemophilia who received clotting factor concentrates before 1987, those exposed to hepatitis C-infected blood through needle sticks or open sores and children born to mothers infected with hepatitis C are at risk of infection and should be tested. People with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or sexually transmitted diseases should also consider being tested since there is a high co-infection rate.

Many of those infected experience no symptoms; although some people have symptoms that appear briefly 6-7 weeks after infection. Symptoms include: nausea, jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), dark urine, light-colored stools, stomachache, loss of appetite, mild fever, flu-like illness and fatigue.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Contact your health care provider for further information on hepatitis C testing.

"Some people are needlessly concerned about hepatitis C and misinformation has been circulating," said Stanley. "In the United States the general population is not at risk of contracting hepatitis C through vaccinations, dental work or body piercing when universal safety precautions are practiced. Sterilization of instruments, disposable needles and good handwashing prevent the spread of the virus," said Stanley. Hepatitis C cannot be transmitted through donating blood. Since July 1992, the blood supply has been screened for the virus and any infected blood is destroyed.  Furthermore, the virus is not spread through casual contact such as hugging, shaking hands or using telephones used by infected persons. Erroneous reports claim that veterans and emergency workers are more likely to be infected with hepatitis C. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies indicate these groups have no higher rate of infection with the virus than individuals of the same age and sex in the general population.

In response to House Bill 1652, the Texas Department of Health (TDH) implemented a series of blinded studies on blood samples to determine the rate of hepatitis C infection in the state's general population and to gather data on infection rates of high risk populations. Results from these studies should be available by the end of 2000 and will be used to develop education efforts to inform the public about prevention and set up effective counseling and testing programs.

Even though the virus is currently difficult to treat, there is hope for people who test positive for hepatitis C. "Those with the hepatitis C virus can make behavioral changes to help prevent further damage to their liver, such as not drinking alcohol. There are also encouraging new treatments being developed," said Stanley.

For more information contact Alma Lydia Thompson, TDH Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Surveillance Division, at 512-458-7676; or Andrea Morrow, TDH Office of Communications, at 512-458-7400.

Source: Texas Department of Health

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