Hepatitis C – The Disease of a Generation
Sheryl Miller was infected with hepatitis C in the early '70s, before the virus was even discovered.
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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Sheryl Miller took a lot of drugs when she was in high school in the early ’70s. “I was a hippie, and we thought it was all harmless,” she says. She is sure that is when she was infected with hepatitis C, a virus that was not even known in those days.
“Hep C seems to be a disease of my generation. I know quite a few people that I went to high school with… they all have hep C.” Hepatitis C is transmitted blood to blood. Sharing needles is the most common route.
Miller is lucky because she knows she has the virus. Millions of people who are infected do not. Although she has been carrying the virus in her blood for 40 years, she is only now beginning to notice symptoms, including headache, fatigue, and joint pain. That delay between infection and onset is typical of hepatitis C, which can lie dormant in the body for decades.
Her doctor, Douglas Dieterich, MD, a liver specialist at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai says untreated, the virus will eventually attack and ultimately destroy the liver. But the long incubation gives patients time to decide when to begin treatment.
“Hepatitis C is a slow-acting virus,” he says, “so as they get older is when the disease kind of takes off exponentially and causes more and more liver disease, more cirrhosis, more liver cancer.”
Miller is lucky for another reason: The drugs that have been developed in the last couple of years to treat hepatitis C are far more effective and have far fewer side effects than the previous generation of drugs.
“I am still in the early enough stage that it’s not critical for me to get treatment,” Miller says. Depending on her insurance situation (the new drugs are expensive) she plans to begin treatment in the fall.
Dr. Dieterich says a larger problem is the 2 to 5 million Americans who don’t know they are infected. “We need to get those patients tested and treated,” Dieterich says. “Not just to save their lives, but also because it’s an enormous financial burden on the system.
Video: Hepatitis C | A Silent But Curable Disease
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