December 15, 2010
Health experts say the vast majority of people with hepatitis C virus are unaware they are infected. HCV can hide in liver cells for years, stealthily doing damage -- cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure are common. The disease accelerates as people hit middle age, with 55 the median age for HCV diagnosis, said Dr. Mitchell Davis of South Florida Gastroenterology.
Davis said people often associate HCV with inmates, addicts, and prostitutes. "It's got this creepy, 'Why should I care? This is a disease of druggies,' connotation," he said. "Well, the people who experimented in college, during the Vietnam War, are now Baby Boomers. They are professionals. They briefly experimented and have been carrying it ever since."
The blood-borne virus is very infectious. "Even a small drop of blood can have 3 million or 4 million virus particles," said Davis. Sharing needles or other drug paraphernalia like a contaminated cocaine straw can spread HCV, as can unsterilized tattoo and manicure equipment. "I tell people if they get manicures to bring their own nail kits," he said.
Nationwide, an estimated 3 million to 5 million people carry HCV. Palm Beach County Health Department records show nearly 1,400 residents have been diagnosed with HCV so far this year.
"This is mainstream America we are talking about," said Dr. Eugene Schiff, director of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Miami.
Schiff believes all primary care doctors should routinely screen middle-age patients for HCV. Current CDC guidelines call for screening of persons who report high-risk behaviors. But Schiff said the reality is patients do not readily acknowledge drug use, especially if it occurred long ago and infrequently.
Palm Beach Post
12.07.2010; Stacey Singer
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