Staying safe from infectious, blood-borne diseases
You’ve probably heard about the outbreak of HIV in Southern Indiana, where more than 160 individuals have been diagnosed with the blood-borne disease. Health officials in Eastern Kentucky are bracing for a similar problem, with Hepatitis C already a problem and HIV potentially coming on its heels.
As a physician who specializes in infectious diseases, this is a cause for concern for everyone. But at the same time, it’s important to know the facts about these diseases, how they spread and what people can (and should) do to protect themselves.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that mainly affects the liver. About 70 to 85 percent of people infected with Hepatitis C develop a chronic infection that damages the liver, leading to long-term health issues and death. It’s also a disease that is relatively asymptomatic, meaning that you won’t know you have it until it has progressed for a very long time. One population at particular risk for Hepatitis C is the Baby Boomer generation (individuals born between 1945 and 1965), whose members make up more than 75 percent of Hepatitis C cases and are five times more likely to have the disease. Though it’s not entirely clear why the risk is so high, it may partly be due to the fact that Baby Boomers could have been exposed before widespread screening of blood supplies and other precautions were put into place.
If untreated, Hepatitis C results in liver scarring (also known as cirrhosis) and/or liver cancers, among other serious health problems. There is no vaccine that exists for Hepatitis C, unlike Hepatitis A and B. Fortunately, however, Hepatitis C is difficult to spread through normal means. You can’t get it just from shaking hands or sitting near someone with Hepatitis C. The vast majority of patients I see with Hepatitis C acquired it from risky behaviors associated with drug use.
HIV, which stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a blood-borne virus that affects the immune system, reducing the ability of the affected individual to fight off infection (this condition is known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS). The disease is chronic and ultimately leads to infections that are deadly or to infection-related cancers. About 1.2 million people in the United States are estimated to have HIV (as of 2011) and about 14 percent do not know they’re infected.
Like Hepatitis C, HIV is not spread through everyday contact. I don’t see a great deal of HIV cases in this area, but it is still something to be wary of in this day and age.
So how are these two diseases spread? The most common means of transmission are:
· Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water or other equipment associated with using injectable drugs with a person who has these diseases
· Sexual contact with an infected individual (more common with HIV than with Hepatitis C, but possible for both)
Less common, but still confirmed, means of transmission include:
· Through childbirth and/ or breastfeeding.
· Being stuck with a needle or other sharp object contaminated with Hepatitis C or HIV-positive blood.
· Through blood transfusions (this is less common since blood started being screened in 1992).
· Through oral contact with an infected person who has an open sore in their mouth. HIV is NOT transmitted by saliva.
· Being bitten by a person with Hepatitis C or HIV (this is rare and is only a risk if the skin is broken; there are very few documented cases of this happening)
· Tattoo or piercing needles (this is very rare, but still possible if proper sanitation protocols are not followed)
HIV CANNOT be spread through the following means:
· Air or water
· Insects like mosquitos or ticks
· Tears or sweat
· Casual contact (handshakes, hugs)
· Toilet seats
· Closed-mouth (social) kissing
Now, while there’s no cure for HIV and Hepatitis C is only curable most of the time, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing medical science can do. In fact, recent advancements in medication mean that people can live normal, long and healthy lives if they get treated early and stick to the medication regimens. Even in cases where people have high-risks for exposure, there are preventive medications that can prevent the spread of infection, as well as treatments that can reduce the chance of infection after an exposure. That’s why it’s important to seek medical attention immediately after a possible exposure, because these preventive measures are time-sensitive.
Since there is no vaccine or cure for HIV and no vaccine for Hepatitis C (though it is curable), the most important thing you can do is prevent its transmission. That means everyone should:
· Avoid IV drug use to begin with, and especially never share needles or other paraphernalia.
· Avoid risky sexual behaviors, such as sex with multiple partners.
· Use barrier protection (such as condoms) during sex. Though it doesn’t totally eliminate the risk, it is still an important means of protection.
If you have any risk factors, it’s never a bad idea to get tested. It can mean potentially limiting the spread of these diseases to others. Being tested also means finding out sooner, rather than later, whether or not you need treatment, and these treatments are time-sensitive.
This article appeared in the Living Well column on the front of the Health section of the June 11, 2015 edition of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.