PART I-THE STORY UNFOLDS
Sometime between 2006 and 2007 infection with the Hepatitis C virus began killing more people than HIV/AIDS. Because these estimates were derived from death certificates they almost certainly underestimate the true number of deaths, as hepatitis C often goes unrecognized.
How can a trend so ominous and a disease so threatening remain so unrecognized by the vast majority of the population? One big reason for this ignorance is confusion about what is meant when we say hepatitis. Hepatitis is a general term that essentially means inflammation of the liver. Many things can cause a liver to be inflamed: Drinking too much alcohol, taking too much Tylenol (and other medications), consuming too many calories, and eating too much fatty food, can all cause liver inflammation and even liver failure. But increasingly viruses are being recognized as responsible for hepatitis. These viral illnesses are often called “Hepatitis” but there are many more causes for a constellation of symptoms referred to as hepatitis.
Initially the hepatitis patient, viral or otherwise may feel lousy, drained, and nauseated. They may have a loss of appetite and may have some vomiting or fever. Since the liver’s primary function is to detoxify the body, Substances normally cleared from the blood by the liver begin to accumulate, turning the skin and eyes yellow (jaundice) and making the skin itch. However, for many, especially those who have been infected with Hepatitis C, the initial inflammation of the liver- the early hepatitis- is completely a-symptomatic.
In this population, the liver continues to be inflamed. Silently, the hepatitis becomes chronic, and slowly the liver begins to fail. The accumulating toxins that the liver would have cleared alter the mind causing confusion and tremors; Blood flow through the liver becomes compromised causing the blood pressure to rise in the veins of the digestive tract, which can lead to dangerous bleeding and fluid accumulation in the abdomen and legs. The chronically inflamed liver may even regress to liver cancer. Chronic hepatitis is a slow, debilitating and deadly illness that often presents too late to be effectively treated.
Read next week’s blog as we begin to uncover the mystery of viral hepatitis.
Dr. Bruce Feinberg