PERSONAL STORY NETWORK
Hepatitis C: Transmission of the Virus
How Hepatitis C Is Spread
Nowadays when people think about hepatitis C, their minds probably go straight to thinking it’s spread through intravenous drug use. But the virus can spread through any form of blood-to-blood contact. While sharing needles is one way you would have that contact, it’s certainly not the only way—especially when you go back and consider just how lax medical protocols were a few decades ago.
Case in point: me. I contracted hepatitis C in 1981 from a blood transfusion following a motorcycle accident. In the past, it was much more common for people to contract any number of pathogens through blood transfusions and organ donation. It wasn’t until around 1992 that strict screening regulations were established within the healthcare industry.
I often joke that I had my motorcycle accident about 10 years too soon. Obviously, if given the choice, I wouldn’t have had the accident at all, but it’s true: had adequate screening measures been in place in 1981, I never would have contracted the virus.
Transfusions aren’t the only thing to blame for the spread of hepatitis C, and more people are at risk for contracting the virus than you might think.
Medical professionals are at a high risk of blood-to-blood exposure. Handling syringes on a daily basis, these professionals are just one small misstep away from accidentally sticking themselves with a used needle.
I’ve worked as an X-ray technician for 26 years. I’m routinely starting IVs on patients and delivering injectable medication. So I’m very familiar with the medic side of the patient-medic relationship.
I even witnessed an orthopedic surgeon contract hepatitis C firsthand. He was in the operating room drilling on a patient, and in handing off the instrument, the surgeon cut himself. We knew the patient had hepatitis C, and following the incident, the surgeon’s blood also tested positive for the virus. For him, that was all it took. That’s a blood-to-blood exposure.
These accidents will always occur. I don’t think we can remove human error completely. But the healthcare industry has made great strides in the last decade. Precautionary equipment like retractable needles and other protocols that eliminate the need to recap needles have significantly decreased the chances of an accidental exposure. The whole situation has really changed now for healthcare professionals.
How Hepatitis C Is Not Spread
I didn’t receive a diagnosis of hepatitis C until 10 years after my accident. in that gap between when I contracted hepatitis C and when we found out about it, my wife and I married and had our two children. After my diagnosis, all three of them were tested for the virus, and thankfully none of them were infected. But again, the virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Knowing that, it wasn’t a huge concern that I would spread the virus around the house.
I don’t think it’s ever been proven that it can be spread sexually through body fluids. I suppose sexual contact can lead to a blood-to-blood exposure, but the chances are very low. One study of heterosexual couples calculated the rate of sexual transmission of hepatitis C to be one in 190,000 sexual contacts. That’s miniscule.
Of course, that’s not to say the diagnosis didn’t change my mindset. It did, but only as it pertains to my blood. If I ever get a cut or need a bandage, I’m extra cautious in cleaning-up to make sure no one else comes into contact with my blood. My wife and I don’t share razors. And when I’m treating patients at work, I always have gloves on just in case.
But given the medical advances and stricter regulations, I really think the healthcare industry has a great handle on how the virus is transmitted. Of all the patients with hepatitis C I’ve encountered over the years, I’d say about 50 percent got it from intravenous drug use, while the rest of us got it from transfusions, organ donations, needle sticks or other medical accidents. In recent years, I imagine the incidence of hepatitis C transmission that isn’t due to drug use has really dropped.
The next step is to work on educating the population of drug users. There have been so many public service announcements about HIV, telling people to avoid sharing needles. But there really hasn’t been an awareness campaign for hepatitis C. And in some ways, the fact that people don’t often develop symptoms of hepatitis C right away—if ever—makes it less likely that people will take proper precautions. It can be 10 to 20 years before infected individuals start to feel the effects of liver damage from the virus. By that point, there’s a good chance they’ve infected others if they routinely shared needles over those years.
With greater public awareness and education about how the virus is spread, I’m confident rates of hepatitis C will continue to drop across the board.
David lives in Baton Rouge where he continues to work as an X-ray technician. Since finishing a 12-week hepatitis C treatment regimen in July, he’s been living virus-free.