Uncovering the Myths and Facts about Hepatitis C and Liver Cancer
Hepatitis C is a serious disease that can cause severe damage to the liver and trigger cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Yet most people who have hepatitis C don’t know they are infected.
“It’s a silent disease,” said Minhhuyen T. Nguyen, MD, AGAF, a hepatologist and Director of Clinical Gastroenterology at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “The virus slips past the surveillance of our immune defenses. You might not know you have it for 20 or 30 years.”
Hepatitis C affects an estimated 3.9 million people in the U.S., and infection with this virus is an all too common yet preventable cause of liver cancer.
Here, Nguyen offered some need-to-know facts about hepatitis C and dispelled some common myths.
FACT: Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer.
Chronic infection with hepatitis B or C is a common cause of liver cancer. Although not all cases of Hepatitis C lead to cancer, your risk of getting cancer is 1 to 5 percent per year if you’ve had hepatitis C for more than 30 years and you develop cirrhosis of the liver, according to Nguyen.
FACT: Rates of hepatitis C are highest among baby boomers—people born from 1945 through 1965.
People in this generation are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. In fact, three out of every four people with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965. Transmission of the virus was at its peak in the 1960s through the 1980s when there was less known about hepatitis C. It is likely during those decades that most of this population became infected.
“There was no screening test for hepatitis C until 1990,” Nguyen noted, and the virus wasn’t completely eliminated from the U.S. blood supply until 1992 when screening donated blood for hepatitis C became widespread.
Still, many baby boomers don’t know how or when they acquired the virus.
MYTH: Most people infected with hepatitis C contracted the virus during unprotected sex.
In most cases hepatitis C is spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. Before the virus was screened from the nation’s blood supply, hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Today most people become infected by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs.
“Only about 1 to 2 percent are infected through unprotected sex,” Nguyen said.
MYTH: There is a vaccine for hepatitis C.
There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B. But there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. Similar to HIV, hepatitis C is an RNA virus, Nguyen said, and producing a vaccine for an RNA virus is difficult. Scientists are, however, working on developing a hepatitis C vaccine.
FACT: You can be cured of hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C isn’t the only virus that can cause cancer—there are several others. While there are effective treatments for all of the viruses, only hepatitis C can be cured with medications called direct-acting antivirals.
“We have about seven different kinds of them that can treat hepatitis C,” Nguyen said. “And the cure rate is in the upper 90th percentile, if you take the medicine correctly. The key is to have people screened for the virus and if positive, then treated. We can’t cure hepatitis C in patients who don’t seek treatment for it.”
FACT: The only way to find out if you have hepatitis C is to be tested.
A blood test that looks for hepatitis C antibodies can determine if you’ve ever been infected with the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all baby boomers be tested for hepatitis C. If you were born between 1945 and 1965 and have not yet been screened for the virus, talk to your doctor about testing. Other people at high risk for hepatitis C include: current and past injection drug users, those who received a blood product before 1987, and people with known exposure to hepatitis C. For a comprehensive list of people at increased risk, visit the CDC website.
The case for testing
Many people infected with hepatitis C don’t have symptoms—they never look or feel sick until they develop liver problems, which is why testing for hepatitis C is so important if you’re at high risk for the disease. It’s the only way to know for sure if you have a virus that can be eliminated, before it has the potential to cause cancer.
Fox Chase has been at the forefront for preventing hepatitis-related liver cancers since the early 1980s. Today, patients are screened and treated for numerous chronic liver diseases, including hepatitis C, at the Liver Cancer Prevention Center at Fox Chase.
Nguyen has a special interest in the treatment of patients with a variety of liver diseases, especially viral hepatitis B and C. She manages one of the largest hepatitis B clinics in the region at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “I believe in accurate diagnosis and timely treatment of patients with active viral hepatitis in order to prevent the progression to end-stage liver disease and the development of liver cancer.”