An In-Depth Look At Hepatitis C

April 1, 2011

In the last month alone, the St. Christopher Fund has received applications from 10 drivers with problems due to Hepatitis C.  Therefore, we decided to take a look at this disease.

Hepatitis C is a disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).  Approximately 270-300 million people are infected worldwide, with 3-4 million new cases each year.  Because Hepatitis C is the most common cause of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), it is the leading reason for liver transplantation in the U.S.  Currently, no vaccine is available for Hepatitis C. Screen shot 2011-03-24 at 2.37.45 PM

There are 2 phases of Hepatitis C, the acute phase and chronic phase.  The acute phase involves the first 6 months after the HCV has caused infection.  Symptoms typically appear between 2-24 weeks and are often flu-like (fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting).  Symptoms may also include having dark urine, clay-colored stool, abdominal pain, joint pain, itching, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin).  However, 60-70% of those infected show no symptoms during the acute phase.

The chronic phase involves infection lasting more than 6 months.  Again, most individuals will have no symptoms and are surprised to learn of the disease when discovered during a routine exam or when being screened for blood donation.  Symptoms vary from person to person with chronic Hepatitis C but can include depression, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, joint pains, nausea and the flu-like symptoms listed above.  When Hepatitis C has caused cirrhosis, symptoms usually appear and may include an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, enlarged veins (especially on the stomach and esophagus), jaundice, a tendency to bruise or bleed, and cognitive impairment (hepatic encephalogy).

Infection can be treated with Interferon or Ribavirin and has a 51% cure rate.  However, according to the CDC, of every 100 persons infected with Hepatitis C, approximately:

• 75–85% will develop chronic infection
• 60–70% will develop chronic liver disease
• 5–20% will develop cirrhosis over a period of 20–30 years
• 1–5% will die from the consequences of chronic infection (liver cancer or cirrhosis)
A faster progression of the disease is influenced by:
• Older age
• Male gender
• Alcohol consumption  
• Fatty liver

Hepatitis C is spread from blood-to-blood contact.  This most commonly happens because of intravenous drug use (the number one cause), receipt of infected blood or organs, needle stick injuries in healthcare, being born to an infected mother.  Although rare, the CDC states that the disease can also be spread by sex with an infected person, sharing personal items such as razors or toothbrushes which contain infected blood, healthcare procedures that involve invasive procedures such as injections, and sharing inhalant drugs.
On average, truck drivers weigh 242 pounds and have a Body Mass Index of 42, which makes having elevated liver enzymes very common (this is due to having a fatty liver).  Therefore, if drivers have any of the risk factors listed above and have been told they have elevated liver enzymes, they should request a Hepatitis C test.  The MeRV and SCF have a unique relationship with Quest Labs, some 2,000 across the country, that can do the test and send it to your doctor. So please help the SCF find and treat Hepatitis C in truckers before the catastrophic events of this disease take you off the road and put your family in jeopardy.

St. Christopher Fund contact
Donation line: 877-332-GIVE (4483)
Fax #: 865-851-8396
P.O. Box 30763  Knoxville, TN 37924