Hepatitis C a growing health threat globally


— The liver is an important organ located on the right side of the upper abdomen. It transforms medicines and food into usable parts. It also stores vitamins and sugar, forms proteins and filters wastes, bacteria and poisons from your body. Hepatitis C, which poses a serious threat to the liver, has become a growing global concern.
Hepatitis, a liver inflammation, is caused by substances such as alcohol or infection by viruses. The most serious form is hepatitis C, which affects 4 million people worldwide and causes 8,000 to 10,000 deaths annually. Acute hepatitis C has severe symptoms for less than six months, while a chronic case has milder symptoms that may disappear, then recur.
Dr. John Sharp, a gastroenterologist with Yampa Valley Medical Associates, said many hepatitis C patients are asymptomatic when they are informed of their infection. "Most of my patients have been referred to me because their primary care provider did a screening antibody test based on a history of risky behavior or perhaps an abnormal liver function test as part of a routine physical," he said.
Symptoms include fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, weakness, mild abdominal pain and occasionally, dark urine, itching and jaundice yellowing of the eyes and skin. Many who experience the "flu-like" symptoms do not seek medical help for what they believe is a minor illness and are not identified until more extensive liver damage has occurred. In fact, 85 percent of those with acute hepatitis C infection will go on to have the chronic disease. The progressive scarring associated with this illness can lead to liver failure and liver cancer, usually more than 20 years after the initial infection. This makes hepatitis C the leading reason for liver transplantation in the United States.
Diagnosed patients are assessed to determine whether medication will be helpful. Other measures include adequate sleep, small, well-balanced meals, regular physician-guided exercise, social support through trustworthy individuals, avoidance of stress and, of the utmost importance, avoidance of substances that irritate the liver, such as Tylenol and alcohol.
"If I don't have complete abstinence from alcohol in my hepatitis C patients, I won't treat them," Sharp said. "The combination of any amount of alcohol and hepatitis C is particularly lethal."

Carrie Burggraf, P.A., is a physician assistant and wellness counselor for the Yampa Valley Health Plan wellness program.


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