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FOR RELEASE: May 9, 2002
CONTACT: Dick Gunn
405/271-5601

May is Hepatitis Awareness Month

An estimated 4 million Americans have been infected with hepatitis C, five times the number of those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Oklahoma State Department of Health estimates more than 50,000 Oklahomans have been infected with hepatitis C.

“Many Oklahomans are unaware of their infection because they do not feel ill,” said State Epidemiologist and Director for Disease and Prevention Services, Michael Crutcher, M.D. “This is a major public health concern, if we are to detect the infection and limit hepatitis C transmission.”

The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Although there are many causes of inflammation, viral infection is a common cause. Viral infections include hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Hepatitis A is transmitted by close personal contact or ingestion of food contaminated by the feces of a person infected with hepatitis A. This is most commonly caused by inadequate handwashing after using the restroom. Hepatitis B is primarily transmitted through blood and sexual contact, whereas hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted through blood. The majority of people infected with hepatitis A and B recover from illness and are considered immune.

In contrast, up to 85 percent of those infected with hepatitis C cannot clear the infection and the virus continues to multiply within their body. These people are referred to as “chronically infected” with hepatitis C and are potentially contagious to others. Up to one-third of chronically infected persons will eventually develop liver disease such as cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.

Crutcher said the primary risk factors for hepatitis C include injecting-drug use and exposure to blood in the health-care setting. Sexual transmission may occur but the risk appears to be low. Blood transfusion-associated cases occurred prior to blood donor screening, but are now very rare.

Symptoms of all viral hepatitis are similar and include yellowing of the skin, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and bouts of nausea and vomiting. When initially infected with hepatitis C, only one of ten people will have symptoms. It can be years, even decades, before a person chronically infected with hepatitis C begins to experience symptoms serious enough to prompt seeking medical care.

Testing for hepatitis C is available through one’s physician. A testing profile may also be obtained at an Oklahoma Blood Institute. Persons for whom testing is recommended include those who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to July 1992, those who received clotting factor concentrates prior to 1987, chronic hemodialysis patients, persons who ever injected illegal drugs (even if one time many years ago), health care and public safety workers after exposure to hepatitis C-positive blood, and children born to hepatitis C-positive women.

There are two drugs licensed for the treatment of hepatitis C. They are effective for a few, but not all, of those persons infected with hepatitis C. Support groups are available in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Information regarding scheduled meetings can be obtained from the Internet at www.searchok.com/~hepcsupportokc. For more information on hepatitis C, contact the county health department in your area or visit the Oklahoma State Department of Health Web site at www.health.state.ok.us/program/cdd.

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