DEAR DR. DONOHUE: When he was 20, my son came down with hepatitis C. He’s never said how he got it, but he was running around with a very wild bunch then. He still has the virus at age 27. Should he be treated? He never was. I wonder what’s in store for him, and if he can marry and have a family. Can he? — C.S.
ANSWER: Worldwide, 175 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus. In the U.S., 4 million carry it. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of infected people will harbor the virus for life. Of that number, around 20 percent develop liver cirrhosis in 20 years, and a smaller number are stricken with liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the most common reason for a liver transplant.
People catch the virus in a number of ways. Sharing needles to inject drugs is one way. Health-care workers can get it from an accidental stick with a needle used on an infected person. Before 1992, blood transfusion was a major source of infection. Tattooing or body piercing by unlicensed practitioners or those who do not adhere to sterile techniques is another route of transmission. Sex with multiple partners is a possible way of contracting the illness. Sex with a single partner who has the virus is not a common route of passage. Your son can marry and possibly but not likely infect his wife, and will not infect his children.
This young man has to establish himself with a doctor. Lab tests will show if his liver is suffering any damage, and blood tests give a reliable estimate of how great a number of viruses is circulating in his blood. Treatment will hinge on that information. A liver biopsy might be necessary. Some doctors feel all who show evidence of current infection ought to undergo treatment.
He should completely abstain from alcohol. Drinking puts his liver in further jeopardy.
The booklet on hepatitis A, B and C explains these common infections in detail. Readers can obtain a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue — No. 503W, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: How does someone with AIDS die? How long does one live after being diagnosed with AIDS? Can a person with AIDS cook for his or her family without fear of giving the virus to loved ones? — D.R.
ANSWER: AIDS kills in a number of ways. It so weakens the immune system that an infection brings death. Or the weakened immune system allows the growth of a cancer that proves fatal. AIDS also can interfere with the production of proteins and other body materials needed for life, and the person wastes away.
The incredible progress made in the treatment of AIDS allows most infected people to live 30 to 40 years after the diagnosis is made, very close to a normal life span. This is possible in countries where people have ready access to the many AIDS medicines.
People with AIDS can cook for their family without any fear of transmitting the virus.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.
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