By Cathy Baker Keaney, MSN, RN, MPH
Law Office of Kevin Keaney
Hepatitis C and Frequently Asked Questions
What is Hepatitis?
“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. The Hepatitis C virus was first identified in 1989.
What is the difference between Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with Hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B; however, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.”
Acute HCV infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the HCV. Approximately 75%–85% of people who become infected with Hepatitis C virus develop chronic infection.
Chronic HCV infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the HCV remains in a person’s body. HCV infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver complications, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and liver failure.
Is Hepatitis C a Presumptive Condition defined by FPD&R?
FPD&R defines Hepatitis B as a presumptive condition, but not Hepatitis C. The presumptive conditions effective January 1, 2008 include: heart disease, hernia of the abdominal cavity or diaphragm, AIDS, AIDS-related complex, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and pneumonia (except terminal pneumonia). Neither Community Acquired MRSA nor Hepatitis C is considered presumptive conditions by FPD&R.
How is Hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person infected with the HCV enters the body of someone who is not infected. Currently the most common way the HCV is spread in the United States is by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. The HCV has not been shown to be transmitted by mosquitoes or other insects.
Less commonly, a person can also get HCV infection through the following situations:
- Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes.
- Needle stick injuries in health care or other settings.
- Having sexual contact with a person infected with the HCV. While the risk of transmission from sexual contact is believed to be low, the risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, engage in rough sex, or are infected with HIV.
- HIV and HCV co-infection refers to being infected with both HIV and the HCV. Co-infection is more common in persons who inject drugs.
- When poor infection-control practices are used during tattooing or piercing. Body art is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and unregulated tattooing and piercing are known to occur in prisons and other informal or unregulated settings.
- Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C.
Are Police Officers at risk of exposure to the HCV?
Absolutely. All police officers are at risk of exposure to the HCV. Not only do officers work with populations most at risk, they are also first responders to motor vehicle accidents, domestic disputes, and other incidents where exposure to blood can occur, either through direct contact with infected individuals or through gathering evidence in the course of an investigation.
How long does the HCV survive outside the body?
The HCV can survive outside the body at room temperature, on environmental surfaces, for at least 16 hours but no longer than 4 days.
What are the symptoms of acute Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C infection usually produces no signs or symptoms during its earliest stages. When signs and symptoms do occur, they’re generally mild and flu-like, and may include:
- Nausea or poor appetite
- Muscle and joint pains
- Tenderness in the area of the liver.
- Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes).
How soon after exposure to Hepatitis C do symptoms appear?
If symptoms occur, the average time is 6-7 weeks after exposure, but this can range from 2 weeks to 6 months. Many people infected with the HCV do not develop symptoms and do not look or feel sick. However, if a person has been infected for many years, his or her liver may be damaged. In many cases, there are no symptoms of the disease until liver problems develop. In persons without symptoms, Hepatitis C is often detected during routine blood tests to measure liver function and liver enzyme levels.
How serious is chronic Hepatitis C?
Chronic Hepatitis C is a serious disease that can result in long-term health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, or even death. It is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States. Today, about 17,000 infections occur annually, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Who should get tested for Hepatitis C?
In draft recommendations issued last month, the CDC urged Hepatitis C testing for all adults born between 1945 and 1965. Baby boomers account for 2 million of the 3.2 million Americans infected with the blood-borne liver-destroying virus. CDC officials believe the new measure could lead 800,000 more adults to get treatment and could save more lives.
“The CDC views Hepatitis C as an unrecognized health crisis for the country, and we believe the time is now for a bold response,” said Dr. John W. Ward, the CDC’s hepatitis chief.
Several developments drove the CDC’s push for wider testing, he said. Recent data has shown that from 1999 and 2007, there was a 50% increase in the number of Americans dying from Hepatitis C-related diseases. Also, two drugs hit the market last year that promise to cure many more people than was previously possible.
The agency’s current guidelines recommend testing people known to be at high risk, including current and past injection drug users. The new testing recommendation is expected to become final later this year.
Should a person infected with the HCV be restricted from working in certain jobs or settings?
The Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for prevention and control of the HCV infection state that people should not be excluded from work, school, play, child care, or other settings because they have Hepatitis C. There is no evidence that people can get Hepatitis C from food handlers, teachers, or other service providers without blood-to-blood contact.
How do police officers prevent exposure to the HCV?
- Practice excellent hygiene and infection control ALWAYS.
- For any blood spills including dried blood, which can still be infectious, clean using a dilution of one part household bleach to 10 parts water. Gloves should be worn when there is potential for exposure to blood and when cleaning up blood spills.
- Do not share personal items such as towels or razors with coworkers.
- Avoid percutaneous (skin) exposures to blood via tattooing and body piercing.
Consult with your physician if you have had a needle stick or exposure to blood from a high risk individual.
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