Data from the city's Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that 2 percent of New York City adults - about 130,000 people - are infected with the virus. The actual number is higher, because hepatitis C is especially prevalent among the homeless and the incarcerated - two groups not covered by this survey. National survey data yielded similar findings for the country as a whole.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne viral infection that damages the liver. Many people contracted it through blood transfusions before the blood supply was protected in 1992. It is also common among people who have used needles to inject street drugs. Hepatitis C can spread sexually or pass from mother to child at birth, but both are rare occurrences.
Some people can live with hepatitis C without ever suffering symptoms, but 15 percent of infected people develop cirrhosis - a scarring of the liver that can lead to cancer - and 4 percent of infections are fatal. The infection can progress silently for 10, 20 or 30 years, even when it is destroying the liver. Most people with hepatitis C are now in their 50s. Many are just now discovering that they were infected during the 1970s and 80s, through blood transfusions or shared needles.
Who Should Get Tested?
Hepatitis C spreads only through blood, not through food or casual contact. The people who most need to be tested are those who have:
"Hepatitis C can be a very serious infection, causing liver disease and death," said Dr. Sharon Balter, Medical Epidemiologist in the Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Disease. "The infection may not cause symptoms for decades, even though it is damaging the liver. If you have ever injected drugs - even once, decades ago - you should get tested. And if you received blood more than 15 years ago, you should get tested, too. If you are positive, treatment is available. There are things you can do to control the virus and stay healthy."
How to Prevent Hepatitis C
There is no vaccine against hepatitis C. Here is how you can protect yourself:
Living with Hepatitis C: Take Care of Yourself
Most people who contract hepatitis C virus will remain infected for the rest of their lives. But tests can determine whether the virus is active in your body, and medication can suppress it about 50 percent of those who take it. If you are infected, taking care of your liver is critical.
Here are of the most important ways to protect yourself:
For more information on living with Hepatitis C, here
Health Department Efforts to Reduce Hepatitis C
The Health Department works with community partners to increase awareness, promote screening, and improve care for Hepatitis C. Efforts include:
For more information on Hepatitis C, click here.