Local News

Most With Hepatitis C Unaware Due To Lack Of Symptoms

Posted June 16, 2004 5:52 a.m. EDT

— Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne illness infecting millions more people than HIV.

Estimates show 900,000 people in the United States have HIV. Four million people have

hepatitis C

. Unfortunately, most people who have hepatitis C do not know it.

The virus lives in the liver, and over time, can damage the liver to the point where a transplant is needed. If caught early, hepatitis C can be treated and cured.

As a nurse, Jackie Boykin is used to taking care of others. She was shocked to learn she had Hepatitis C.

"Even though I was a nurse, I was terrified. I thought I was going to die," she said.

Like most people, Boykin does not know exactly how or when she got it.

"It's a disease like high blood pressure," said Dr. John McHutchinson, a Duke gastroenterologist. "It doesn't have any symptoms, so people don't know until they're tested or go to the blood bank."

The virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, most commonly through a blood transfusion before 1992 or intravenous drug use. Health care and public safety workers also have an increased risk.

Boykin believes she contracted the virus at work. Fortunately, she knew about treatment options. A combination of weekly injections and daily pills often cure hepatitis C.

"With both of those drugs, we can cure and eradicate the virus in 55 percent of people," Hutchinson said.

There are side effects, including fever and aches, fatigue, depression and weight loss.

Boykin, who says she has lost about 18 pounds, started her treatments two years ago. Last week, she received the news she was waiting for.

"I found out Friday that I've been virus-free for a year-and-a-half. They can't find the virus anymore in my blood stream," she said.

Now that she no longer has hepatitis C, Boykin can concentrate on her patients. She also wants to educate others about the virus.

"I can be an advocate or just be an example for people and let them know what's been done for me," Boykin said.

McHutchinson is leading a


to see which of the treatments approved by th Food and Drug Administratiion for hepatitis C work the best and give the highest cure rates.

Boykin considers herself lucky to be cured. For some reason, African-Americans do not respond as well to hepatitis C treatments. Research is now under way to find out why and to find drugs that do work.