Pamela Anderson Cured of Hepatitis C: What You Should Know About the Virus

Pamela Anderson has announced she’s been cured of hepatitis C after living with the virus for 16 years.

The actress and model, 48, took to Instagram to share her good news. “I am CURED!!! – I just found out #nomorehepc,” she wrote in the caption. “I pray anyone living with hep C can qualify or afford treatment. It will be more available soon. I know treatment is hard to get still…#dontlosehope.”

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Hepatitis C can be a debilitating and even fatal condition, but it can also be asymptomatic for years before it causes problems. That’s why it can go entirely unnoticed for years. In fact, of the estimated 2.7 million people in the United States who have hep C, three in four don’t know they’re infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Many, many more people have never even heard of it. Below, we outline the need-to-know facts on the condition.

What exactly is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that causes inflammation of the liver. In some cases, people exposed to it (more later on how that happens) can fight it off on their own. But about 75% of people exposed go on to develop chronic infection, with many ultimately developing complications like chronic liver disease, liver failure, and liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.

How does Hepatitis C spread?

Like other blood-borne viruses, hepatitis C is spread through contact with infected blood. Anderson first went public with her diagnosis back in 2002, telling People in a statement at the time that she contracted it after sharing a tattoo needle with her then-husband Tommy Lee.

Sharing needles related to injection drug use is currently the most common way people contract it, per the CDC, but many people are also exposed at birth if their mother is infected or via accidental needle-sticks in hospitals or other healthcare settings.

Infection rates were highest in the 1970s and 1980s due to blood transfusions; there was no available hepatitis c blood screening test until 1992. The result: baby boomers, or people born between 1945 and 1975, are five times more likely to be infected. Blood banks now can screen for the virus, making the transmission risk from a transfusion extremely small.

Hepatitis C can also be transmitted through sexual activity if one partner is infected, though it’s much less common.

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What makes hepatitis C so serious?

Unlike hepatitis B, another serious virus that affects the liver, there is no vaccination to prevent hepatitis C. It’s also the most common blood-borne virus in the U.S., according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it kills roughly 15,000 Americans every year.

Referred to as a silent epidemic, it’s also usually symptomless, and many people who have hepatitis C may even live for years without feeling sick—or may never feel effects at all, if they catch it before it advances. (The Baywatch star didn’t experience symptoms: “I don’t have any liver damage and I don’t have any side effects,” she told People in a previous interview.)

If an infected person does have symptoms, they can include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, joint pain, dark urine, or jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes).

Then how do you know if you have it?

The only way to know for sure is to get tested. Doctors use a blood test to scan for specific chemicals that the virus releases into the bloodstream. (Follow-up tests by your doctor would be the next step.)

The CDC made a big push in 2013 to educate baby boomers about the virus, and  encourage them to get tested. If you’re never been tested, especially if you have risk factors like previous intravenous drug use, it can’t hurt to talk to your doctor about it.

What’s the connection between Hep C and HIV?

Both hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are blood-borne viruses that can be transmitted through injection drug use. Because of this, a high proportion of adults at risk of HIV may be at risk of infection for both diseases. According to the CDC, about a quarter of all HIV-positive people in the U.S. are “co-infected” with hepatitis C.

The hep C infection also tends to progress more quickly into liver damage in HIV-positive individuals.

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Can it really be cured?

Yes, it’s now possible, but there are barriers. The FDA approved a pill that can cure hep C in December 2013, which has been considered a major medical breakthrough in recent years. Known as Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), the pill can cure up to an estimated 80 to 90% of Hep C patients in a matter of eight to 24 weeks when it’s used in combination with another newer drug, Olysio (simeprevir), which was approved a month before Sovaldi.

However, the pill cocktail comes at an extremely high price, which has sparked a lot of controversy. For a full course of treatment of just one of the pills alone, it costs more than $80,000.

Anderson didn’t disclose the exact drug treatment that she took to clear the virus, but she did raise an important point about how few people have access to the new treatments.

Will the drugs become more accessible in the future, as Anderson suggests? The answer is unclear, although drug companies and insurance providers appear to be working tirelessly to lower prices.

The New York Times explained in a September op-ed that government-run programs, like Medicaid, have placed certain restrictions on the drugs in an effort to control costs. For instance, some restrictions require that patients already have advanced liver disease before they can get the medication, or that the treatments can only be prescribed by specialists, like infectious disease experts.

This past June, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS Nancy Mahon penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting to do away with restrictions that are denying people earlier treatment.

Prescription-assistance programs do exist; experts generally recommend that patients speak to their doctors about financial support and medication co-pay options.

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New Research Links Hepatitis to Parkinson's Risk

You may have seen recent headlines tying hepatitis to Parkinson’s disease. In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers reported that people who have hepatitis B or C may have a higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative brain disorder.

But the finding shouldn’t be cause for alarm, stresses Andrew Feigin, MD, professor of neurology at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. It doesn’t mean that causes Parkinson’s, he says. Nor does it mean that having hepatitis automatically means you’ll get Parkinson’s. Far from it. Even if the data were confirmed, infection with the virus would just be another in the maze of risk factors that contribute to developing the disorder, which affects movement, mostly in people over the age of 60.

“There’s no one cause of Parkinson’s,” says Dr. Feigin, who was not involved in the new study. “There are a lot of different factors that lead up to one person having a risk and another person having a different risk.”

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The risks are both genetic and environmental. Two we know about are growing up on a farm and being exposed to pesticides; and growing up in very industrial areas with heavy metals in the air and water. Others are still unknown.

Hepatitis B is spread through blood and bodily fluids like semen, so unprotected sex, sharing needles, or even razors or toothbrushes can put you at risk. Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood. Sharing needles, razors, and toothbrushes will put you at risk, but rarely does unprotected sex. Both viruses, if left unchecked, can damage the liver.

The authors, based in the United Kingdom, cross-referenced hospital records of people diagnosed with hepatitis and people with Parkinson’s disease. They found that people with hepatitis B had a 76% higher risk of developing Parkinson’s compared to people without the virus. The Parkinson’s risk was 51% higher among those with hepatitis C. (Autoimmune hepatitis, chronic active hepatitis, and weren’t linked to Parkinson’s.)

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The authors could only speculate on what might be responsible for such a relationship: the virus itself, the drugs used to treat the virus, or something else entirely.

They were not able to take into account lifestyle factors like smoking. And they acknowledge that using hospital diagnostic codes to categorize patients carries some uncertainties.

“Sometimes people with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease really don’t have classic Parkinson’s,” explains Dr. Feigin. They have some of the same symptoms, like tremors; but the symptoms are often caused by something else, he adds. “You have to view [the data] with a bit of caution.”

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Even if the relationship between hepatitis and Parkinson’s pans out, there’s little need to panic. “Roughly .3% of the general population will get Parkinson’s at some point in their life,” says Dr. Feigin. “If the risk is even doubled, you’re still under a 1% likelihood of getting Parkinson’s.” And in this study, the risk of developing Parkinson’s was less than double.

The Hepatitis A Outbreak Is Now Officially in LA

A hepatitis A outbreak was declared in Los Angeles County on Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times, just days after San Diego health officials announced an outbreak of the contagious disease in that city. While only 10 people have been confirmed infected in Los Angeles County, the San Diego outbreak is currently much larger: More than 400 people have been sickened there, and at least 16 have died.

Most of those infected in San Diego have been homeless, according to a statement from the county, and health officials say the virus has spread through contact with a “fecally contaminated environment.” In Los Angeles County, officials said they’d documented five people with the illness who had recently traveled to San Diego or Santa Cruz (where cases related to the San Diego outbreak also appeared) . But two of the newly infected people in Los Angeles County were homeless and seem to have been infected locally, which triggered the outbreak declaration. 

To curb transmission rates, San Diego officials have hosted more than 250 mass vaccination events, installed hand-washing stations throughout the city, and made efforts to sanitize areas where homeless people live and congregate, spraying down sidewalks and streets with diluted bleach, reports NPR. Los Angeles health workers have also adopted similar practices. 

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Hepatitis A is highly contagious, says David Mulligan, MD, chief of transplantation and immunology at Yale-New Haven Health Transplantation Center, and it’s often misunderstood. (Dr. Mulligan has not been involved with the California outbreaks, but he does treat hepatitis patients at Yale.) Here are four things to know about this headline-making disease.

Hepatitis A is transmitted orally

Unlike hepatitis B and C—which are transmitted through sex or exposure to infected blood—hepatitis A is usually spread through ingestion of contaminated food. “One of the most common causes is shellfish and raw seafood, like oysters and clams,” says Dr. Mulligan. “If these foods are contaminated with the virus, eating them can make you pretty sick.”

Other foods can become contaminated with the virus too, especially if they’re in contact with fecal matter from an infected person. In the San Diego outbreak, health officials seem to think the virus has spread because of sanitation issues and lack of public-bathroom access.

It attacks the liver—but not forever

The word hepatitis means inflammation of the liver, and that’s exactly what happens when these viruses—A, B, or C—enter the body. “They can cause destruction of normal liver tissue, and if a person has compromised immunity, they can lead to liver disease and liver failure,” says Dr. Mulligan.

But unlike other forms of the virus, hepatitis A is transient: It doesn’t stick around in the body for a long time, and most people have no lasting damage from it. According to a fact sheet from San Diego County, the virus can last from a few weeks to many months.

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Hepatitis A is not usually fatal

People who become sick with hepatitis may experience a fever, fatigue, nausea, digestive issues, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes as a result of the liver not working properly). But many others, especially children, will carry the hepatitis A virus and have no symptoms at all.

Otherwise healthy people who become sick from hepatitis A typically get better on their own, says Dr. Mulligan. “We usually just provide supportive care and let the body clear the virus by itself,” he says. “But we will watch them closely, and if someone’s liver is getting worse and worse, we will perform a transplant.”

All of those who have died so far in the San Diego outbreak have had underlying medical conditions, the county says.

A hepatitis vaccine—and good hygiene—can protect you

The vaccine to prevent hepatitis A is currently recommended for all babies when they reach the age of 1, for travelers to certain countries, for men who have sex with other men, and for other high-risk individuals. If you haven’t been vaccinated and think that maybe you should, talk to your doctor.

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“If you like shellfish, you eat a lot of seafood, or if you travel to other countries outside the United States, you should strongly consider getting the shot,” says Dr. Mulligan. In San Diego, officials have also recommended that health-care workers and people who handle food get vaccinated as well.

Other ways to protect yourself, according to San Diego County health officials, are to avoid sex with someone who has hepatitis A; to use your own towels, toothbrushes, and eating utensils; and to not share food, drinks, or cigarettes with other people.