20-year-old virus that causes hepatitis may spread unchecked among gay men

Despite the risks and misconceptions associated with the viral infection, clinicians and educators are actively tracking cases of various stages of this potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal infection. Tracking the first cases The first of the…

20-year-old virus that causes hepatitis may spread unchecked among gay men

Despite the risks and misconceptions associated with the viral infection, clinicians and educators are actively tracking cases of various stages of this potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal infection.

Tracking the first cases

The first of the virus cases in the United States was identified last September in a 65-year-old Oregon woman who went into the hospital with severe symptoms such as diarrhea, blood in the stool, and fever. She suffered multiple setbacks and was placed on ventilators, according to Paul deCastro, a gastroenterologist at Providence Health & Services who treated her.

Doctors were alarmed to find that the strain of the virus most associated with human immunodeficiency virus was present in this initial case. Hina Nahar, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the physicians who prescribed a special strain of antiviral drugs that proved effective.

The woman spent time in the hospital before she was released, but the gastrointestinal infection persisted and even progressed to leukemia. She recently died of complications related to her cancer.

DeCastro said the Oregon woman was a long-time survivor of HIV — she had had a kidney transplant in 2008 — which allowed her body to suppress her immune system enough to withstand such infections.

In October, another case was identified in a 35-year-old man who lives in Brooklyn. He was in and out of the hospital due to worsening intestinal infections — only one in eight patients with this strain can survive, deCastro said. “He did so well through much of it,” he added.

If they were to infect others, “hundreds of people may have had hepatitis C and caught pneumonia,” deCastro said. “It could have been much worse.”

The massive amounts of antibiotics required in this case have since not resulted in bacteria in his stool. Instead, the man has been subjected to a string of tests to detect where his infection was coming from and whether he could pass it on to others. “If he did pass the virus on to others, he may not have spread his infection in a typical manner, which is through feces — another example of how difficult this disease is to get rid of,” deCastro said.

While nearly all hepatitis C infections involve sharing contaminated needles, this case is not caused by contaminated needles, deCastro said.

The physician said the couple would likely be the last people infected with the virus. Though such infections still occur outside the US, this virus has not appeared in people living in the US since before 2002, and typically this infection was eliminated after one to three generations.

If you contracted hepatitis C from an infected person while overseas, then doctors say there is an 80 percent chance your hepatitis C has healed completely or at least has reduced its likelihood of spreading.

Health officials say they are trying to get the word out to members of the gay community that it is safe to have sex with someone infected with the virus. “Gay people tend to be in and out of many different countries and use different drugs, so testing is more difficult,” deCastro said. “But my experience has been that most gay people don’t have any problem having sex with people with hepatitis C.”

Health officials have said they are worried that two hepatitis C cases associated with the recent outbreak will not be the last in the country. More than 17,000 people contracted the virus through syphilis or gonorrhea before screening became commonplace, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “All viruses circulating in the United States can infect those people if they come into contact with the virus,” Nahar said. “I would argue that syphilis is much more threatening than hepatitis C.”

Read the full story at The Daily Meal.

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