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Spreading Awareness of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a serious viral infection that has the potential to cause severe liver damage and, in some circumstances, can even lead to liver cancer. Approximately 3 million adults in the United States (mostly of the “Baby Boomer” generation) have Hepatitis C, and 3 out of 4 of these individuals may not even know that they have the virus. Due to this fact, many people living with Hepatitis C do not seek medical attention, which can allow the virus to spread through their system, causing irrevocable damage.

Eight out of 10 people infected with “Hep C” will remain infected for their entire lives. While a simple blood test (i.e., the Hepatitis C antibody test) can tell one if he or she has EVER been infected with the virus, it cannot tell if the individual is CURRENTLY infected. This diagnosis requires a subsequent follow-up RNA blood test. Data from the CDC show that only about half of the people who get Hepatitis C antibody tests receive follow-up RNA blood tests. Without the follow-up test, a person will not know if he or she is currently infected with Hep C, and might not seek the required medical care.

The underlying problem with this particular strain of Hepatitis is that many of those with the virus became infected before the true dangers of the disease were well known. While it is true that anyone can get Hepatitis C, those born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to have contracted it. Because these individuals contracted the disease before widespread blood screening began in 1992, they might not know about it for much of their adult lives.

Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through direct contact with an infected person’s blood. This means that anyone who has injected intravenous drugs has the potential to contract Hep C. Most people who have the disease display no symptoms, but if symptoms do appear, they can mean that the person has serious liver damage. Hepatitis C causes liver scarring and liver failure if left untreated, and is in fact the leading cause of liver cancer. The good news is that, using modern medical techniques and treatments, it is possible to eliminate the Hepatitis C virus from the body entirely once it is detected.

The following is a list of people who should make sure they are tested for Hepatitis C:

  • Those born between 1945-1965;
  • Anyone who received blood products with a clotting factor before 1987;
  • Anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992;
  • Anyone who has ever injected drugs;
  • Those living with HIV/AIDS;
  • Those who have been on kidney dialysis for several years; and
  • Any health or public safety workers who have been stuck with a needle or sharp object with blood on it.

As future professionals, dental students are responsible for both helping to spread awareness about Hepatitis C to their patients, and for preventing the possibility of spreading the infection to others. It is important for the safety or the provider and his/her staff that at-risk patients be checked for Hepatitis C, as it is possible to spread the disease through blood. As such, it may be an important talking point to ask clinic patients, and future patients over the age of 50 whether or not they have received a Hepatitis C blood test, and a follow-up test if the initial results came back positive.

The FDA also recently approved the first “fingerstick” rapid antibody testing method to detect Hepatitis C in a patient’s blood. This test is quick, accurate (greater than 98% accuracy), and test results are available in under 20 minutes in most cases. These tests can be delivered in any public health setting, including physician’s offices, clinics, labs, and emergency rooms, and represent a quick, cost-effective method for the detection of Hepatitis C that patients should be made aware of.

It will be important to take special infection control procedures when managing patients known to be infected with Hepatitis C (as it is with all blood borne ailments such as HIV and HBV), and dentists and their staff will need to take extra care when cleaning instruments in these cases. While it is not your place as future dental professionals to diagnose or attempt to treat Hepatitis C, it is critical that your patients (especially older patients, and those at higher risk) know about the condition, how to identify whether or not they have it, and what actions to take if they do. The links provided below will provide dental students with more ammunition for speaking to their patients about Hepatitis C. We suggest you browse these pages so that when the day comes that you need to speak to a patient about this disease, you are well prepared to do so.

*Adapted with permission, 2013  

Related Reading

  1. http://www.dimensionsofdentalhygiene.com/ddhnoright.aspx?id=13713
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/features/vitalsigns/hepatitisc/
  3. http://nvhr.org/
  4. http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/hepatitis/hepatitis_c/rapid_antibody_testing/
  5. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2013/05/07/half-of-people-with-hepatitis-c-dont-complete-needed-tests-cdc
  6. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/hepatitisc/?s_cid=ostltsdyk_govd_374
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