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Major Risk Factors for HCV Besides IV Drug Use, Get Tested for HCV Says Peter Lawford
 
 
  By ALEX CUKAN
UPI Health Correspondent
 
ALBANY, N.Y., Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Actor and author Christopher Kennedy Lawford wants people to know -- especially his fellow baby boomers -- that they may be at risk for hepatitis C virus, or HCV, even if they've only had a few snorts of cocaine.
 
"If you fall in any of the major risk factors -- illegal drug use, blood transfusion(s) before 1992, 10 or more sexual partners, dialysis or have had a tattoo -- you should get tested for hepatitis C because you are not going to know by the way you feel," Lawford told UPI's Caregiving.
 
"There are a lot of people who didn't think they did anything particularly risky who are at risk for hepatitis C -- you share a dollar bill to snort a line of cocaine or get a tattoo -- but there are some 4 million people estimated with hepatitis C and 70 percent don't know it."
 
Lawford, perhaps best-known as having played the character Charlie Brent on the ABC-TV soap opera "All My Children" in the early 1990s and as the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2001. He details the long list of illegal drugs he took from age 13 to 30 in his book "Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption," now out in paperback. He was treated and is healthy today. He calls himself one of the lucky ones.
 
v It is estimated that most chronic HCV infections are contracted through transfusion of unscreened blood or via injected drug use, according to the CDC.
 
"You hear about hepatitis C and you think Pamela Anderson and it's one of those rock 'n' roll diseases and that it can't happen to you," Lawford said.
 
But HCV is the most common chronic infectious disease in Europe and North America, affecting an estimated 170 million people worldwide. It is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
 
However, studies have shown that the use of needles and syringes is not the only drug-related risk factor for HCV.
 
A study in New York City, published in 2001 in the journal Substance Use & Misuse, found a higher-than-expected prevalence of hepatitis C infection among non-injecting drug users.
 
In one study, 17 percent of the subjects who denied a history of injection drug use were found to be infected with HCV compared to a 2-percent infection rate in the general population. Among women from one of the study sites in East Harlem who reported use of non-injection heroin, the rate of infection was as high as 26 percent.
 
"If hepatitis C can be transmitted through the sharing of non-injecting drug paraphernalia such as straws or pipes, we need to include this information in public health messages targeted to this population," said Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
 
In another study in 2001, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found low-income women between the ages of 18 and 29 in San Francisco were infected with HCV at a level almost 2.5 times higher than the HCV infection rate for the general population in the United States.
 
"San Francisco had the highest HCV infection level, 4.3 percent -- nationally the level is 1.8 percent. Injection drug use is the strongest risk factor, but we were surprised to find that co-infection with herpes simplex virus type-2, or HSV-2, was also significantly associated with hepatitis C infection," said lead author Kimberly A. Page-Shafer. "This suggests that infection with HSV-2 may be a co-factor for sexual transmission of hepatitis C."
 
One of the problems of treating hepatitis C is that the infection can be dormant for decades and people may not realize that something they did in their 20s can make them sick when they are in their 50s.
 
"Hepatitis C can stay dormant in your blood and liver before you develop any symptoms. I was tested for hepatitis C in 2001, but that might have been 15 or 20 years after I had contracted the illness," Lawford said.
 
"It's my intention to make people aware that a simple $40 blood test is a lot better than a having to get a liver transplant. This is a life-threatening disease, but there is a cure.
 
"But you must be tested -- people have to be proactive and ask for the test. I would be dead if I had not been tested."
 
Next: Hepatitis C treatment.
 
Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her real work. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com
 
 
 
 
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