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Should pregnant women be worried about hepatitis C?
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Hepatitis C infections have tripled in the past 5 years, the CDC recently reported, not only among adults, but among babies, who can contract the virus in the womb. An infection can be diagnosed and treated by a primary-case physician, so if you're at risk and thinking about getting pregnant, health experts say it's a good idea to be tested - photo by Jennifer Graham
A potentially deadly virus that causes liver cancer and other serious health issues is surging in the U.S., another consequence of the opioid epidemic. And newborn babies are among those affected.

The hepatitis C virus can kill silently and slowly, coursing through a person's bloodstream for decades before yielding any symptoms of the disease.

Its ne'er-do-well kin, hepatitis A and hepatitis B, are in decline across the nation, but hepatitis C, also known as HCV, has tripled in the past five years, even though effective treatments have emerged in that same time period, including at least one developed in Utah.

Unchecked, the virus causes inflammation of the liver, the body's largest internal organ, and eventually can lead to cirrhosis and cancer. (Other things that can damage the liver include obesity and alcohol, the Mayo Clinic says.)

But drugs taken for three months are effective in 80 to 95 percent of cases, and a person who is virus-free six months after treatment is pronounced cured.

Why, then, is hepatitis C resurgent, and should your family should be worried about it?

How the virus spreads

The word "hepatitis" derives from hepar, which means liver in Greek. The liver is roughly the size of a football and weighs about 3 pounds. Its cells break down fats and produce energy, and the organ filters toxins from the blood.

Fifteen years ago, fewer than 900 new cases of hepatitis C were being reported each year, a rate that stayed roughly the same until 2011, when diagnoses began to increase.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 2,400 new cases in 2015. But that's just the number of cases that have been diagnosed by doctors; federal officials believe as many as 34,000 Americans became infected that year, most of them in their 20s, Mike Stobbe of The Associated Press reported.

Health officials say the infection rate is accelerating because so many opioid addicts turn to heroin when they can no longer get pills. The virus is spread blood to blood, and heroin users who share needles are at high risk of infection. In fact, officials at the CDC say people should be tested for hepatitis C even if they only used heroin once and it was years ago.

That's because most people infected with the virus don't know they have it until they're in the advanced stages of disease. About three-quarters of infected people show no symptoms during the infection's beginning or "acute" stage.

Unfortunately, not knowing you carry the virus makes it more likely that you could transmit it to others. Hepatitis can live for up to three weeks outside of the body, so if you have it and cut yourself shaving, family members could contract it by using the same razor or by brushing up against a dried drop of blood with a wound of theirown.

It's also possible for people to contract the virus if they get a tattoo in unsterile conditions.

And, most worrisome to moms and moms-to-be, an infected woman can give the virus to her baby during pregnancy. While this is rare, the CDC says, there has been a spike in fetal transmission in areas particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic.

In West Virginia, for example, 2 percent of babies were exposed to HCV at birth, and some parts of Tennessee saw exposure rates of nearly 8 percent, Dan Vergano of BuzzFeed News reported.

Women who are considering getting pregnant, and who fall into a high-risk group, should ask their doctors if they should be tested. If they carry the virus and respond well to treatment, they could be effectively cured in about the amount of time it takes to carry a baby to term.

But testing for HCV is not necessary for pregnant women unless they're considered high risk, the CDC says.

Who are these high-risk people?

The largest group of people most likely to have hepatitis C and not know it are baby boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964. They're the people most likely to have had blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 before blood-donation centers routinely screened for the virus. The CDC recommends that every baby boomer be tested.

Others include drug users who share needles (even if it was years ago) and people who have unprotected sex.

In people who contract the virus, the acute stage lasts for about six months. During that time, a person may experience fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, jaundice, joint pain and abdominal pain, and expel dark-colored urine.

For some people, the infection will resolve after this stage, but more than three-quarters of people will move onto the chronic stage, in which the infection remains in the body, usually without symptoms, unless disease develops. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants, the CDC says.

But a positive test does not necessarily mean you'll develop a disease of the liver. Everyone who's been infected will have antibodies in their blood, even if they recover. A positive HCV test requires another one that will determine if the virus is still active.

HCV in Utah

In October 2015, health officials in Ogden announced that thousands of patients at McKay-Dee Hospital might have been exposed to hepatitis C by a nurse who was stealing drugs. An investigation later found that at least 16 patients had contracted the virus, but there could have been more, since not everyone exposed came in for the free testing the hospital offered.

Even before then, hepatitis C rates were increasing in Utah. They rose 20.5 percent between 2014 and 2015, the latest year for which data is available, according to a report from the Department of Epidemiology at the Utah Department of Health.

That makes it the second most frequently reported communicable disease in the state, behind chlamydia.

Overall, the numbers are small. In 2015, more Utahns had active tuberculosis than acute hepatitis C.

But the national increases reported by the CDC are also occurring in Utah. There were 11 cases of acute hepatitis C in 2013 in Utah; 33 in 2014; and 33 in 2015, according to the Department of Health.

Chronic cases have surged, too, from 1,078 in 2013 to 1,511 in 2014 and 1,855 in 2015.

Nationwide, about 20,000 people died from conditions related to hepatitis C in 2015, AP reported.
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