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Hepatitis C

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What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a communicable (contagious) disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The liver, the largest organ in the body, is found behind the ribs on the right side of the abdomen. It has many important functions, including removing harmful material from the blood and converting food into substances needed for life and growth. The term "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. There are other viruses in the hepatitis family (such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B), but HCV is not related to them.

Quick Facts About Hepatitis C

  • Hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne infection in the United States. About 35,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.

  • Hepatitis C is transmitted primarily when an infected person's blood comes into contact with the blood of a noninfected person.

    • People who are at the highest risk for HCV infection are those who have used or experimented with injection drugs; received a blood transfusion, blood product, or organ transplant before July 1992; worked in health care and had a needlestick accident involving HCV-infected blood; or had multiple sex partners.

    • A risk exists but is low (1 to 5 percent) for babies born to a mother with hepatitis C and for people who are in a monogamous sexual relationship with someone with hepatitis C; who have had other sexually transmitted diseases; who have had tattooing or body piercing done with unsterilized tools; or who have used cocaine intranasally (i.e., "snorted" it).

    • Hepatitis C is not spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing, hugging, food or water, or casual contact.

  • People who are newly infected have what is called acute hepatitis C. For about 15 to 40 percent of this group, the infection is short-term, goes away, and does not return. Others develop chronic (or long-lasting) hepatitis C, in which the virus stays in the liver, replicates itself, and injures the liver over time.

  • Among people with chronic hepatitis C, most show no symptoms for up to 20 to 30 years; some have mild symptoms; and some have more serious symptoms.

  • Chronic hepatitis C can cause liver disease, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and liver failure. However, persons who have been diagnosed with hepatitis C need to know that serious illness or death from the disease is by no means inevitable--especially if they take proper care of themselves and get the health care they need.

What does conventional treatment for chronic hepatitis C consist of?

People who have a mild case of hepatitis C may only need to manage it by visiting their doctor regularly and following their doctor's recommendations--such as eating a nutritious diet, avoiding alcohol (because of its impact on the liver), and getting regular exercise.

For people with more severe hepatitis C, however, drug therapy may be needed. A drug called interferon is the mainstay of conventional treatment. Interferon is often combined with an antiviral (virus-fighting) drug called ribavirin. Such combination therapies are usually taken for 6 months to 1 year. Approximately 55 percent of patients treated with the combination of interferon and ribavirin for 1 year will achieve a sustained response (that is, a sustained benefit from treatment). If a patient does not achieve a sustained response, his doctor may decide whether another course of treatment (re-treatment) is appropriate.

Combination regimens benefit many patients. However, their side effects can be difficult for some patients to tolerate. These side effects can include flu-like symptoms (such as body aches, fever, chills, and fatigue); nausea and other gastrointestinal problems; hair loss; emotional changes; skin reactions; and, in more severe cases, depression, organ damage, blood conditions, and other problems.

Why do people use CAM for hepatitis C?

There are various reasons why people use CAM for hepatitis C, including:

  • They have not had a response to initial treatment or to re-treatment with drugs.
  • They are not willing to have drug treatment or continue it--for example, because of the side effects or length of treatment.
  • They would like to support their body's "fight against damage by hepatitis C, and they hear of benefits claimed for some CAM treatments--such as "strengthens the immune system" or "cleanses or rejuvenates the liver" (or other organs).
  • They are experiencing problems from other diseases and conditions that can be caused by or worsened by hepatitis C.
  • They are not satisfied with their conventional medical treatment.

How commonly do people with hepatitis C use CAM therapies, and what do they use?

While there have been no surveys yet on the use of CAM by persons with hepatitis C specifically, there is some data from a survey published in 2002 on the use of CAM by persons who have chronic liver diseases (such as hepatitis, liver cancer, alcoholic liver disease , or cirrhosis). This survey of 989 patients being treated for various liver diseases at six clinics in the United States found that 39 percent used some form of "alternative therapy." The therapy they used the most was herbals or botanicals (21 percent). However, the herbals and botanicals were used for reasons besides liver disease, such as depression. Thirteen percent of all survey participants used herbals or botanicals specifically for their liver disease, and they used only milk thistle (12 percent) or licorice root (1 percent). The other most commonly used CAM therapies were self-prayer ( 18 percent), and (from 6 to 9 percent each) relaxation, megavitamins, massage, chiropractic, and spiritual healing.

Herbs are plants or plant parts valued for their flavor, scent, and/or therapeutic properties. "Herbals" and "botanicals" are synonyms and mean herbal and botanical products.

Self-prayer is when an individual prays for himself. It can be contrasted with intercessory prayer, in which an individual prays for others.

What CAM therapies are discussed in this Research Report?


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