February 19, 2007

Anita Roddick Has Hepatitis C

Dame Anita Roddick, the 64-year old British environmental campaigner and founder of Body Shop revealed today that she has Hepatitis C.

"I have Hepatitis C - it's a bit of a bummer but you groan and move on," she says on her website.

According to Dame Anita, she contracted the disease when she received a blood transfusion in 1971 when her daughter Sam was born. However, it was only when she had a blood test recently that the discovery was made. She also has cirrhosis of the liver, one of the long term effects of the disease.

Dame Anita lost no time in adding her voice to the campaign to raise awareness of Hepatitis C and to stimulate more government action and funding. She has just become Patron of the UK's Hepatitis C Trust, a charity set up in 2001 by a group of people who have the disease.

Hepatitis C is a virus that passes from person to person mostly through infected blood. This was the most common route in the UK until 1991 when donated blood began to be screened for the virus.

The virus causes inflammation of the liver (that is literally what "hepatitis" means), and over time begins to limit the important function the liver plays in keeping the body healthy. More recent research has revealed that Hepatitis C also causes damage to other parts of the body, such as the digestive system, the immune system, the brain and the lymphatic system.

Hepatitis C used to be called non-A non-B hepatitis (NANBH) when in the 1980s scientists realised that something like Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B was causing liver damage. It was not until 1989 that they began calling it Hepatitis C, and shortly afterwards a blood screening test for was developed.

The virus is based on RNA which means that it mutates much faster than viruses based on DNA and this makes it hard for the immune system to develop the antibodies that can seek out and destroy the new mutations.

Hepatitis C infections have two stages: acute infection which is the first 6 months after initial infection, and chronic infection. During the acute phase very few symptoms are present, and about 20 per cent of people who become infected manage to shed the virus and do not go on to have chronic infection.

But for the remaining 80 per cent of people who become infected the chronic stage sets in for decades and that's when the serious damage is done. It can take decades for long term effects to show, or symptoms can show almost immediately.

The long term effects of Hepatitis C lead to liver fibrosis and cirrhosis (where the liver becomes scarred), cancer, and liver disease, the latter often requiring a transplant. The timescale in which these things may happen appear to be erratic and bear no relation to symptom severity. Some people can go undiagnosed for years, feel OK, and then find out they have severe fibrosis and cirrhosis.

This is why it can be decades, as in the case of Dame Anita, before people discover they have what has become known as "the silent killer". Diagnosis is also compromised because other symptoms like fatigue, depression, insomnia, tummy pains and upsets, skin irritations and rashes, are mostly put down to other causes.

It is estimated that some 200 million people all over the world have Hepatitis C, with some countries like Egypt having a high prevalence of around 10 per cent of the population, while in Northern Europe the figure is much lower at 1 per cent.

According to Dame Anita, it is very important for people to find out if they have the disease, which the Hepatitis C Trust estimates to be about half a million people in the UK, most of whom have no idea they are infected. Although there is no cure, care and treatments for the symptoms do exist, and "everyone with hep C deserves proper care and treatment if they want it," she says.

"It's especially important that people like me, who are over fifty and who had blood a transfusion before 1991, come forward for testing," says Dame Anita, who stresses there is also a priority in terms of stopping the transmission of Hepatitis C, in raising awareness and overcoming the stigma that surrounds it, which like the case of HIV, "stops people getting a fair deal."

Click here for Hepatitis C Trust (UK)

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Writer: Medical News Today

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