May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, a time dedicated to spreading awareness about the viral infections that cause inflammation of the liver. It is also a month of opportunity for certain groups heavily impacted by this condition, such as Hispanics, to learn about the risk factors and new data regarding these diseases.
SEE ALSO: What you should know about hepatitis
Though hepatitis can be caused by bacteria, autoimmune conditions, injury, or poison, when the term is used, it is most commonly associated with infection from one of these five viruses: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or less commonly, hepatitis D and hepatitis E.
Though hepatitis A, B and C are the most common forms of viral hepatitis seen, it is hepatitis C that gets the most attention. This is because, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the United States, affecting more than 3 million people.
Hepatitis C is often asymptomatic, and the majority of infected individuals dont know they have the disease until the liver has already become damaged. This form of hepatitis is spread through contact with infected blood, and is usually transmitted through sharing of needles, childbirth, blood transfusions before the 1990s, and sexual contact.
Unfortunately, individuals with hepatitis C experience liver cancer, liver failure, or scarring of the liver tissue 20-30 years post infection when liver complications reach the point of presenting as severe illness.
Hispanics are considered a group that is high-risk when it comes to hepatitis C, and research earlier in 2014 found the prevalence of hepatitis C among adult Hispanics varied by background with Puerto Ricans having the highest prevalence, those with a South American background having the lowest prevalence, and those of Central American, Cuban, Dominican, and Mexican backgrounds having intermediate hepatitis C prevalence rates.
“Until now, national health surveys that assessed hepatitis Cs prevalence among U.S. Hispanics have looked only at Mexican-Americans, Mark Kuniholm, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said in a press release at the time. As a result, no one knew whether the rates were higher or lower in other Hispanic populations. It turns out that theres a dramatic variation in prevalence, with infection rates ranging from less than 1 percent in Hispanic men of South American or Cuban background to 11.6 percent in men of Puerto Rican background a more than 10-fold difference. This suggests that its not appropriate to lump all U.S. Hispanics into a single, broad at-risk group.
To further solidify the need for Hispanics to be aware of the prevalence of hepatitis C in the community, earlier this month health professional in the state of Texas issued a statement on the growing number of Hispanics in the region suffering from hepatocellular carcinoma–the most common form of liver cancer.
According to the experts, the Mexican American community in Texas is suffering disproportionately from liver cancer and the primary reason is the high rate of hepatitis C among the population.
“Texas has one of the highest mortality rates for liver cancer in the United States,” said Dr. Howard Monsour in a press release. “We have one of the highest populations with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30, and we are in the top three or four in cases of hepatitis C. Its hitting the Mexican American community very hard, especially in south Texas.”
Hope on the horizon for hepatitis C?
Though there are many hurdles involved when it comes to treatment of hepatitis C –particularly its lack of symptoms at the time of infection–experts suggest we are well on the way to eventually eradicating the disease.
According to a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers say the progression of anti-viral medications has revolutionized [hepatitis C] treatment by offering genuine prospects for the first comprehensive cure of a chronic viral infection in humans. This success can be traced to important scientific, clinical, and regulatory developments.
The article authors then went on to say that the development and progress in other anti-viral areas, such as that related to HIV, has significantly improved the possibility that hepatitis C will one day be a disease of the past.