Hepatitis C is a particularly nasty virus for two reasons. The first is that it is the leading cause of chronic liver disease and liver transplants and complications related to the virus cause between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths each year.
The second is that symptoms of the virus may not appear until decades after a person is infected.
The virus is spread mostly through contact with contaminated blood from dirty needles and syringes shared by intravenous drug users (60%), blood transfusions (10%), and unprotected or risky sex (15%). Contaminated equipment used for tattoos, body and ear piercing, and manicures may also spread the virus. There have also been outbreaks of the virus in medical facilities with inadequate or failed infection-control procedures.
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C which was only discovered in 1989. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 80% of those infected never have symptoms. When symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, and nausea do occur, it may not be for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years after infection. In its later stages, the virus can cause cirrhosis of the liver and fatal end-stage liver disease requiring a liver transplant.
The CDC now estimates that, in the next 10 years, the number of deaths from complications of hepatitis C will triple. The sharp increase is expected among baby boomers infected in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of risky behavior. According to the CDC, two-thirds of those infected with hepatitis C are white, male baby boomers who live above the poverty line. Dr. Robert S. Brown, medical director for the Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation at New York Presbyterian Hospital states that: “The majority of my patients experimented with drugs during the â€˜60s and â€˜70s and now work on Wall Street”.