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Hepatitis C: Raising Awareness About a Silent Epidemic

By Tamara E. Holmes 

While much progress has been made in increasing awareness about the realities of HIV, hepatitis C is a silent epidemic that is wreaking havoc on the Black community.

Hepatitis is a family of viral infections that affect the liver. One of those infections, hepatitis C, is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

“African Americans have a higher rate of chronic HCV infection than other racial and ethnic groups, and the African American mortality rate related to the hepatitis C virus is almost double the rate for non-Hispanic White people,” says C. Virginia Fields, president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA).

In addition, hepatitis C, also called hep C, is more prevalent among people born between the years 1945 and 1965. Within the Black community, men in their 50s bear the brunt of the disease, with 1 in 7 living with chronic HCV.

Understanding the Disease
Hepatitis C is transmitted when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. The most common way for it to be transmitted is through the sharing of needles or syringes during injection drug use. Less-common ways of getting HCV include accidental needle pricks in health-care settings, sexual contact and mother-to-child transmission during childbirth.

For some people, hepatitis C is an acute infection that can clear up on its own. However, for between 75 and 85 percent of people who become infected with hep C, it becomes a chronic condition that can last a lifetime, causing such problems as cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. In fact, “Black people ages 50 to 64 have the highest mortality rate—18.6 percent—related to liver cancer,” Fields points out.

To determine whether you have HCV, testing is paramount. A blood test determines whether there are HCV antibodies in the bloodstream. If there are, a follow-up test confirms the diagnosis and determines how much HCV is in the body.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that baby boomers—anyone born between 1945 and 1965—get tested. Others at high risk for HCV include current and former injection drug users, recipients of a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before July 1992, anyone with abnormal liver tests and people infected with HIV.

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