Hepatitis C infection can either be acute or chronic. It is the inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). This virus is very contagious and spreads more commonly through contact with the blood of an infected person, although you can also get infected through sexual contact with an infected person. Hepatitis C virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or water.
Whiles all the different types of hepatitis can pose a threat to the liver, hepatitis C has been reported to be the most common cause of liver cancer. An acute infection of hepatitis C can last up to 6 months but usually gets cleared from the body without causing problems for the liver. However, chronic hepatitis C which last life-long, can lead to the development of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. It also will require treatment with medication. Unfortunately, there is still yet no vaccine available for hepatitis C, like there are for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Who is at Risk?
Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection. WHO estimated that in 2016, approximately 399 000 people died from hepatitis C, mostly from cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer). Those most at risk of hepatitis C infection include :
- Those who inject illicit drugs.
- Having a sexual partner who is infected with the virus.
- Recipients of clotting factor concentrates made before 1987, when less advanced methods for manufacturing those products were used.
- Hemodialysis patients.
- Health care workers after needle sticks involving blood from someone who is infected with the hepatitis C virus.
- Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus.
- People with HIV
- Children born to mothers infected with the hepatitis C virus.
- People who are in prison.
- People who use intranasal drugs.
- People who received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments.
An infected person may not experience any noticeable symptoms in the acute phase. But if symptoms appear, they may include :
- Decreased appetite.
- Abdominal pain.
- Dark urine.
- Grey-coloured faeces.
- Joint pain.
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes).
It is important that you see your doctor if you or your child has any of these symptoms for early diagnosis and treatment.
Getting early diagnosis can prevent health problems that may result from infection and prevent transmission of the virus. Because most cases of hepatitis C infection does not come with noticeable symptoms, this can sometimes be tough to do. Your doctor will ask you a number of questions to determine whether you could have been exposed to the virus and will examine your body for signs of the disease. But the definitive diagnosis of hepatitis C is through laboratory screening of your blood.
Your doctor will ask you to do a blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test (anti-HCV), to tell if you have been infected with the hepatitis C virus. You may also be asked to do another test, called a hepatitis C virus RNA test. This will show whether the infection is chronic.
Liver function test, imaging studies or liver biopsy may be recommended for you to monitor the extent of liver damage and how effective the treatment is.
Treatment and Prevention
Your immune system can be able to clear an acute infection. But if the infection is chronic, you may require medications to treat hepatitis C. WHO statistics reports that antiviral medicines can cure more than 95% of persons with hepatitis C infection, thereby reducing the risk of death from cirrhosis and liver cancer. But unfortunately, access to diagnosis and treatment is low. In addition, it is important that alcohol consumption be stopped as well as consumption of chemicals and certain drugs like paracetamol (acetamenophen) which can further damage the liver.
Because there is no effective vaccine against hepatitis C, prevention of HCV infection depends upon reducing the risk of exposure to the virus in health-care settings and in higher risk populations. Here are recommendations from WHO on the primary prevention of hepatitis C :
- Safe and appropriate use of health care injections.
- Safe handling and disposal of sharps and waste.
- Provision of comprehensive harm-reduction services to people who inject drugs including sterile injecting equipment and effective treatment of dependence.
- Testing of donated blood for HBV and HCV (as well as HIV and syphilis).
- Training of health personnel.
- Prevention of exposure to blood during sex.
- Hand hygiene, including surgical hand preparation, hand washing and use of gloves.
- Promotion of correct and consistent use of condoms.
- WHO – hepatitis C fact sheet
- CDC – questions about hepatitis C
- Hepatitis C Trust – information about hepatitis