Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes both acute and chronic infection. Acute HCV infection is usually asymptomatic, and is only very rarely (if ever) associated with life-threatening disease. About 15–45% of infected persons spontaneously clear the virus within 6 months of infection without any treatment.
The remaining 55–85% of persons will develop chronic HCV infection. Of those with chronic HCV infection, the risk of cirrhosis of the liver is between 15–30% within 20 years.
How does Hepatitis C Virus gets Transmitted / Spread:
The hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne virus. It is most commonly transmitted through:
- Injecting drug use through the sharing of injection equipment;
- Reuse or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, especially syringes and needles in healthcare settings; and
- the transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products.
HCV can also be transmitted sexually and can be passed from an infected mother to her baby; however these modes of transmission are much less common.
Hepatitis C is not spread through breast milk, food, water or by casual contact such as hugging, kissing and sharing food or drinks with an infected person.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
The incubation period for hepatitis C is 2 weeks to 6 months. Following initial infection, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms. Those who are acutely symptomatic may exhibit fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-coloured faeces, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes).
Screening and diagnosis
Due to the fact that acute HCV infection is usually asymptomatic, few people are diagnosed during the acute phase. In those people who go on to develop chronic HCV infection, the infection is also often undiagnosed because the infection remains asymptomatic until decades after infection when symptoms develop secondary to serious liver damage.
HCV infection is diagnosed in 2 steps:
- Screening for anti-HCV antibodies with a serological test identifies people who have been infected with the virus.
- If the test is positive for anti-HCV antibodies, a nucleic acid test for HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA) is needed to confirm chronic infection because about 15–45% of people infected with HCV spontaneously clear the infection by a strong immune response without the need for treatment. Although no longer infected, they will still test positive for anti-HCV antibodies.
After a person has been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C infection, they should have an assessment of the degree of liver damage (fibrosis and cirrhosis). This can be done by liver biopsy or through a variety of non-invasive tests.
In addition, these people should have a laboratory test to identify the genotype of the hepatitis C strain. There are 6 genotypes of the HCV and they respond differently to treatment. Furthermore, it is possible for a person to be infected with more than 1 genotype. The degree of liver damage and virus genotype are used to guide treatment decisions and management of the disease.
Getting tested for Hepatitis C
Early diagnosis can prevent health problems that may result from infection and prevent transmission of the virus. WHO recommends screening for people who may be at increased risk of infection.
Populations at increased risk of HCV infection include:
- people who inject drugs;
- people who use intranasal drugs;
- recipients of infected blood products or invasive procedures in health-care facilities with inadequate infection control practices ;
- children born to mothers infected with HCV ;
- people with sexual partners who are HCV-infected;
- people with HIV infection;
- prisoners or previously incarcerated persons; and
- people who have had tattoos or piercings.
Treatment for Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C does not always require treatment as the immune response in some people will clear the infection, and some people with chronic infection do not develop liver damage. When treatment is necessary, the goal of hepatitis C treatment is cure. The cure rate depends on several factors including the strain of the virus and the type of treatment given.
How to Prevent Hepatitis C Infection
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, therefore prevention of HCV infection depends upon reducing the risk of exposure to the virus in health-care settings and in higher risk populations, for example, people who inject drugs, and through sexual contact.
The following list provides a limited example of primary prevention interventions recommended by WHO:
- hand hygiene: including surgical hand preparation, hand washing and use of gloves;
- 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;
- testing of donated blood for hepatitis B and C (as well as HIV and syphilis);
- training of health personnel; and
- promotion of correct and consistent use of condoms.
Secondary and tertiary prevention
For people infected with the hepatitis C virus, WHO recommends:
- education and counselling on options for care and treatment;
- immunization with the hepatitis A and B vaccines to prevent coinfection from these hepatitis viruses and to protect their liver;
- early and appropriate medical management including antiviral therapy if appropriate; and
- regular monitoring for early diagnosis of chronic liver disease.