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Far more common than HIV, hepatitis C infects 4,000,000 people in the United States alone. Worldwide, over 170,000,000 people are infected with HCV, and over a million people die of the disease every year.

Hepatitis C (HCV) - most common viral infections in the world

Hepatitis C, also known as HCV, is one of the most common viral infections in the world. About 2 per cent of the population of the United States carries the virus. About 22 per cent of the population of Egypt is infected with HCV, due to contamination of blood products in the 1980's and 1990's.

The virus that causes hepatitis C is usually acquired through infected medical equipment or syringes, or by blood transfusion, and seldom through sexual intercourse. In areas where nearly everyone has hepatitis C infection, the virus can be acquired from contaminated drinking water, but this is very rare. Also very rare are cases transmitted by tattooing or during kidney dialysis.

Signs of hepatitis C. The hepatitis C virus may stay dormant in the liver for decades. Some people never have any symptoms of the disease. In heavy drinkers, and in people who have to have chemotherapy for cancer or steroid treatment for lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, the virus can be activated to cause any of a variety of symptoms including:

  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting blood
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Erectile dysfunction in men
  • Confusion
  • Bleeding hemorrhoids
  • Appearance of small "spider veins" under the skin

Late symptoms of hepatitis C may also include:

  • Nosebleed
  • Flatulence
  • Fever
  • Decreased volume of urine
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored or pale stools
  • Breast enlargement in men
  • Bleeding gums
  • Abdominal pain

Unfortunately, by the time these symptoms appear, the liver has already been damaged. The only warning signal may be a change in sleep patterns, feeling sleepy during the day and alert at night, and itching that is not related to bug bites or allergies. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and death.

Natural hepatitis C cures?

Natural therapies for hepatitis C are usually helpful but almost never curative. The milk thistle extract silymarin, for example, can help prevent cirrhosis of the liver, but it cannot cure it. Taking silymarin when there is damage to the bile ducts can actually make liver damage worse.

A reduced calorie diet also helps prevent development of symptoms by lowering insulin resistance. Liver cells that do not have to protect themselves from excessive inflows of blood sugar by insulin resistance tend to stay healthier. Once symptoms have occurred, however, diet is not especially helpful.

Is hepatitis C curable? Hepatitis C drug treatment has been available for over 30 years. The first medicine used to treat hepatitis C was interferon. This is a class of substances known as cytokines that are made by white blood cells. The various forms of interferon "interfere" with the ability of the virus to replicate itself. When the virus does not multiply, the immune system does not attack the cells that host it. (The real damage caused by hepatitis C is inflicted by the immune system, not by the virus.)

The interferon used to treat hepatitis C is made in the lab, not extracted from white blood cells. Used by itself, the original forms of interferon occasionally completely eliminated the virus from the patient's body, but only about 10 per cent of the time. In 2001, the US FDA approved new formulations of interferon combined with polyethylene glycol, also known as PEG, to make it last longer in the body.  "Pegylated" interferon is about 50 per cent effective.

In 2009, the FDA approved "multiferon" for use in treating melanoma, but plans to use it to treat hepatitis C have not gone forward. The problem with using interferon to treat hepatitis C is its tendency to cause flu-like side effects.

Unbearable side effects of hepatitis C medication 

The side effects of interferon treatment are so unpleasant that it is not unusual for hepatitis C patients to decide they would rather deal with cirrhosis than with their medication. In addition to flu-like symptoms, interferon can cause severe insomnia, violent behavior, depletion of white blood cells, depletion of red blood cells, and various forms of psychosis, even without previous history of psychiatric illness.

When interferon is combined with the anti-viral drug ribavirin, the chances of recovery are greater, but so are the side effects, especially uncontrollable itching. Adding the anti-viral drug can also cause breakdown of red blood cells.

New hepatitis C treatments. Fortunately, two new drugs may be on the horizon. Unlike interferon, which interferes with the RNA in the virus to keep it from reproducing, these two new drugs, boceprevir and telaprevir, coat the virus so that it cannot reproduce itself.

Early tests at the University of Miami show that these two new drugs can boost the cure rate for hepatitis C to about 75 per cent. The only major side effect seems to be headaches. And, unlike interferon, these drugs offer hope for treating people of African descent, who usually do not respond well to interferon treatment.

It is likely that cautious doctors will use boceprevir and telaprevir as an addition to interferon treatment, rather than as a replacement for it. For patients who simply cannot stand the side effects of treating with interferon, however, these drugs offer another avenue of hope for recovery from this potentially devastating disease.

World Hepatitis Day every May

Hepatitis C sufferers often do not receive the attention given to sufferers of other diseases, such as breast and lung cancer. That is why health officials and health agencies all over the world recognize World Hepatitis Day every May.

Many people who have hepatitis C today were infected before 1992, when effective blood screening became possible. They may have been told by their doctors in the 1990's that their infection was "nothing to worry about," and even as they developed more and more symptoms, beginning with itching and swelling, and proceeding to the frightening combination of symptoms described earlier in this article, they still may not have received treatment.

When they were finally deemed to be appropriate candidates for interferon treatment, many of them only in the last 5 years, up to 25 years after their initial infection, much of hepatitis C's damage had already been done.

This is why the third week in May is Hepatitis C Awareness Week and the month of May is Hepatitis C Awareness Month. If you have ever been told you tested positive for hepatitis C, or if you experience any of the symptoms of hepatitis C, you should stay aware even in the future for exciting developments in drug therapy for hepatitis C that may make cure possible without debilitating side effects.

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