Hepatitis C is a very common infectious liver disease. The virus spreads through the blood stream but what are the symptoms and how is it treated?
Definition: what is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infectious liver disease spread by blood by the virus of the same name. It is a part of the viral hepatitis and can cause cirrhosis or cancer in the liver.
The Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is responsible for the acute form (the most common virus with no symptoms and non-serious) and chronic form of the illness.
In the world, around 150 million people are affected by Hepatitis C. It is estimated that 500,000 people die each year from conditions linked to this disease. A cure for Hepatitis C still does not exist today.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
The acute Hepatitis C occurs after an incubation period of around 6 weeks and in most cases, it has no symptoms. However, the virus can cause fevers, fatigue, abdominal pains, a lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting, a dark colouring of yellowing of the urine.
Around 15 to 35% cases of acute Hepatitis C evolve spontaneously when the patient is on their way to recovery. The remaining 65 to 85% of cases tend to develop a chronic infection after more than 6 months.
Also, it has been the most common disease with no symptoms for decades, and chronical Hepatitis C can cause progressive deterioration of the liver over several years. It will therefore cause hepatitis damage, a cirrhosis and in the rarest of cases, liver cancer. These complications are accompanied by signs such as diabetes, problems with the heart or skin.
Transmission of Hepatitis C
The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through the blood stream. The most common ways the disease spreads are by using intravenous drugs with equipment that hasn’t been sterilised, a transfusion of contaminated blood, medical equipment that has not been properly sterilised or organ transplants. Automatic screening of blood donations has considerably reduced the infections spread in this way.
In very rare cases, a mother infected by the virus can spread it to new-borns through birth. Transmission through sexual intercourse is equally possible but remains unproved and controversial. The co-infections HCV/HIV are just as common in some countries.
In around 10% of cases of Hepatitis C, the cause of the illness isn’t known and is therefore known as sporadic hepatitis.
Diagnosis of Hepatitis C
The diagnosis of Hepatitis C is usually very late, during the chronic phase due to the illness commonly having no symptoms. It develops in two stages. First of all, a serologic test can detect the specific anti-HCV anti-bodies that appear towards the end of the incubation period.
In case the serologic test is positive, an amplification test of nucleic acids can be carried out in order to measure the amount of virus that is present in the blood stream. In case of the advanced stage of the disease, it is important to determine the state of the hepatitis damage, done commonly with a liver biopsy.
Hepatitis C treatment
The treatment of Hepatitis C is only recommended during the chronic phase of the illness. The acute phase can lead to spontaneous recovery in some cases. It generally consists of dual therapy based on Pegylated Interferon-alpha and an anti-viral medication called Ribavirine for a period of 12 weeks. New medications limit the secondary effects (flu-like syndrome, anaemia), however have only recently been developed.
The effectiveness of treatment particularly depends on the type of the Hepatitis C virus. In effect, the success rate reaches 80% in case of infection by genotypes 2 and 3, but only 45% in cases of infection by genotype 1, which is more resistant to the treatment.