R & B singer Natalie Cole, daughter of the legendary Nat King Cole, died December 31, 2015 at age 65.  Her cause of death was heart failure.  She died at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from complications of Hepatitis C.  She admitted to intravenous drug use in the early ’80’s.  It was this past heroin addiction that she blamed for her contraction of Hepatitis C.

I don’t think that my parents even imagined that I would be exposed to drugs. In those days, for some reason, it was not talked about, just like sex was not talked about.

Natalie Cole

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that attacks the liver.  75% of people infected with this virus develop a chronic infection.  For 25% of those individuals, chronic Hep C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and liver cancer over a 25 to 30 year period.

Hepatitis C is spread through contact with infected blood. Intravenous drug use is a prominent cause of infection, especially in the case where needles are shared.  As well, getting tattoos, piercings, pedicures, manicures or medical procedures without proper sterilization are ways Hepatitis C is contracted.

Hep C virus
Hepatitis C virus
AJC ajcann.wordpress.com, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr
Exploded piechart of Hepatitis C infection by source based on CDC data
Exploded piechart of Hepatitis C infection by source based on CDC data
optigan13, Public domain, via Wiki Commons

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

When Natalie first contracted the disease, likely in the ’80’s, she probably felt few to no symptoms.  She may have felt mild flu-like symptoms such as nausea, fatigue and reduced appetite.  By the time symptoms appeared, she was likely suffering serious liver damage.

Treatment for Hepatitis C

In Natalie’s case, the most effective treatment for Hep C was chemotherapy, likely in the form of injections of interferon. Interferon was designed to stimulate the immune system.  It had many side-effects.  In Natalie’s case, it destroyed both of her kidneys. She was lucky to receive a kidney transplant which gave her extra years.

Since 2010, new therapies for Hep C infection have been developed. Direct-acting antivirals are pills that act on the Hepatitis C virus, removing it from the body.  The cure-rate using these therapies is over 90% with few negative side-effects.

There is no vaccine available to the public to prevent Hepatitis C yet. It is a disease caused by a complicated, variable group of viruses. This has made production of a vaccine difficult.  There is one two-tier vaccine for Hep C currently being tested on people.  This trial should be completed in 2016 and has shown positive results; however, more testing will be required before it is available to the public.

The antiviral therapies now available, seem to be effective at all stages of the disease.  However, damage to organ systems cannot be repaired by this drug so access to the drugs sooner is better than later.  If Natalie Cole had access to these drugs earlier in her life, the liver and heart damage causing her untimely death may have been avoided.

References

Sweeting, Adam.  Natalie Cole Obituary.  The Guardian.  January 3, 2016.  www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/03/natalie-cole

The Associated Press. ‘Unforgettable in our hearts forever’: Singer Natalie Cole dies at 65 after fierce courageous battle.  National Post. January 1, 2016.  http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/unforgettable-in-our-hearts-forever-singer-natalie-cole-dies-at-65-after-fierce-courageous-battle

WebMD.  What Is Hepatitis C?  Hepatitis Health Center, WebMD.  http://www.webmd.com/hepatitis/hepc-guide/digestive-diseases-hepatitis-c

Whitman, Honor.  Hepatitis C vaccine shows promise in early clinical trial. MNT. November 6, 2014.  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/285027.php

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