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Hepatitis C: New Dangers, New Hopes

Fall 2012

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hepatitis c viruses

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is perhaps one of the most overlooked viral infections worldwide, despite being very common and preventable. Recently, it has become apparent that the risk of transmitting HCV during sex had been underestimated because earlier studies included mostly monogamous, heterosexual, HIV-negative couples. Outbreaks of sexually transmitted HCV among HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) have been reported in many parts of the world in the past decade, proving that the risk of sexual transmission of HCV may be higher in certain groups.

HCV is a serious threat to the health and well-being of those who become infected, but recent advances in testing and treatment have greatly improved the situation for those who are at risk or diagnosed.


What Is HCV?

HCV is transmitted by contact with HCV-infected blood. It is an extremely efficient virus, meaning people who are exposed to it are very likely to become infected. The virus can live for over two weeks in a speck of dried blood! Blood-to-blood contact remains the most likely method of transmission, whether during sex or through sharing needles. The virus has also been found in semen, but it remains unknown how efficient that route of transmission is. Without treatment, HCV viral loads can increase to levels that make transmission even more likely.

In the U.S., about 3 million people have HCV, and over 80% of these cases are chronic. Fortunately, chronic HCV infection usually progresses slowly and may not lead to liver disease in many patients -- especially if the infection is acquired later in life. Approximately 20 to 30% of people who are chronically infected develop cirrhosis over 20 to 30 years. In 2007, HCV was the cause of approximately 15,000 deaths, surpassing the annual mortality rates of HIV. HCV is a common co-infection in people with HIV, but it often goes undiagnosed for many years, and 73% of deaths are in people aged 45 to 65. Chronic HCV infection is also associated with high rates of liver disease and cirrhosis, which can lead to expensive and invasive liver transplants. The average cost of HCV-related care for one person over their lifetime exceeds $100,000.

Why Should LGBT People Be Concerned About HCV?

"Past HCV prevention efforts focused on people who inject drugs. It is now widely accepted that HCV is a sexually transmitted infection, and that HIV-positive MSM are especially vulnerable."

Past HCV prevention efforts focused on people who inject drugs. Whether for recreational drugs, hormones, or cosmetic products, LGBT populations are more likely to report having used syringes than the general population. The large number of new cases of HCV among HIV-positive MSM in Europe added a new cause for concern since the vast majority of these men reported no history of injecting drugs. Studies later confirmed that there was a network of sexual transmission in several countries by showing the strains of HCV believed to be sexually acquired were not the same as those commonly passed between injection drug users. In Amsterdam, it was estimated that 1 to 4% of HIV-positive MSM were co-infected with HCV in 2000. By 2008, nearly 21% of HIV-positive MSM in one study sample were co-infected, and most of the infections happened between 2005 and 2007. Since the early 2000s, HIV-positive MSM in Belgium have experienced a 3% increase in co-infections annually. It is now widely accepted that HCV is a sexually transmitted infection, and that HIV-positive MSM are especially vulnerable.

Rapidly increasing rates of sexually transmitted HCV have now been documented in cities in Europe, Asia, and North America. In the U.S., it appears that HIV-positive MSM in New York City are experiencing the highest rates of HCV co-infection, at around 12%. North America has not yet experienced the dramatic rates of HCV that have been seen in other parts of the world. Therefore, better prevention initiatives and increased testing could help avoid such a situation from developing.

HIV/HCV co-infection is a major concern, because it can mean faster progression to serious liver problems and can increase the likelihood of death from either virus. It is important to note that HCV has been found in HIV-negative MSM who reported only sexual risk behaviors. This could mean that sexually-transmitted HCV could become a serious issue even for MSM who are HIV negative.

How Can I Protect Myself?

2 men on grass

Past recommendations for avoiding HCV were simple: don't inject drugs -- and if you do, use clean needles. Unfortunately, the ways in which HCV transmission occurs during sex are not as well understood, and may include a number of biological and behavioral factors. Several studies of HIV-positive MSM found that recent HCV infection was associated with:

  • Past or current STIs
  • Many sex partners
  • Unprotected anal sex
  • Sex practices that increase contact with blood
  • A partner with a history of injection drug use
  • Stimulant drug use
  • Sharing straws to snort drugs
  • Drug use -- especially methamphetamine -- along with sex

HCV cannot be transmitted by sweat, tears, or saliva. Ways to lower the risk of HCV transmission include:

  • Reducing or stopping drug use
  • Not sharing equipment to snort or inject drugs
  • Using condoms consistently and correctly
  • Having fewer sexual partners
  • Not combining sex and drugs
  • Avoiding sexual practices that increase of the chance of contact with blood

Some of these recommendations are vague. This is because there are not enough data to make specific statements about what behaviors carry the highest or lowest risk of HCV transmission. A few studies have found particular sexual acts to be associated with HCV transmission, but these findings remain controversial. For example, some studies looked specifically at "fisting" as a risk for HCV transmission. This is based on the idea that the act of fisting is more likely to result in contact with blood than anal sex because it can cause more trauma to tissues in the anus.

In real life, however, sex and drugs are complicated topics. It's difficult to calculate the exact risk for any one behavior when there are endless combinations of sex acts that can occur during a single encounter. The overlap between sex and drug use certainly complicates the equation. Likewise, those acts labeled as "dangerous" can be done in ways that reduce the likelihood of transmission. As with many other STIs, the overriding message is to avoid contact with bodily fluids that may carry pathogens. Condoms, medical-grade gloves, or dental dams are a good place to start if there is a chance of contact with the bodily fluids of another person.

How Do I Know If I Have It?

There are no obvious symptoms of HCV, but some people may experience chronic fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of skin), nausea, and joint pain. The majority of people with HCV will have no symptoms for many years and may go undiagnosed until the effects on liver function become more prominent. Luckily, HCV can be detected with a simple test.

A conventional HCV test requires a blood draw and, in most cases, a waiting period. However, OraSure received FDA approval for a rapid HCV test in 2010. The test requires only a finger stick to draw a drop of blood and twenty minutes for results. It is expected that the same device will be approved for testing with an oral swab in the future. As with other antibody tests, confirmatory viral load testing should be performed if the antibody test is positive, since some people can clear the virus without treatment. If a diagnosis of chronic infection is confirmed, a healthcare provider should also perform liver function tests.

Unfortunately, not many community providers have been able to add HCV testing to their services because many states do not yet have an oversight process for rapid HCV testing. Likewise, there is little funding for HCV testing or education, though this is changing. Many federal agencies have turned their attention to the issue and some pharmaceutical companies have committed to expanding existing testing efforts. The Department of Health and Human Services now encourages HCV testing and care to be added to existing Ryan White CARE Act initiatives. The CDC has also expanded its recommendations to state that all "Baby Boomers" (those born between 1945 and 1965) should receive at least one HCV test in their lifetime. Hopefully, these new guidelines will help to increase the detection of HCV infection and referrals to treatment.

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This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
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