Understanding, Treating and Eradicating Hepatitis C

 

NHS England state that hepatitis C currently affects 215,000 people across England and, according to the most recent statistics, an average of 1,974 new cases developed between 2011 and 2015. Despite its prevalence, most people don’t know what hepatitis C is, or why it is important to be tested for it.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus which most commonly affects the liver.  

If left untreated, the virus can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver and may also have adverse effects on the digestive system, lymphatic system, immune system and brain. However, with modern treatments, hepatitis C is highly curable and most people who contract the virus will have a normal life expectancy.

Contracting Hepatitis C

As a blood-borne virus, hepatitis C is most commonly spread through blood-to-blood contact. As a result, the most common ways to contract the virus include:

  • sharing unsterilised needles

  • sharing razors or toothbrushes  

  • from a pregnant woman to her unborn child

  • through unprotected sex (though this is rare)

Injecting drug use is the most common way to contract the virus. It is estimated that around half of people who inject drugs in England have, at some point, been infected.

Stages

Hepatitis C can be categorized into two stages: acute infection and chronic infection.

Acute infection refers to the first six months on infection and may not result in any noticeable symptoms. It is estimated that around 20% of those infected with hepatitis C will naturally clear the virus from their body during this stage. However, for the remaining 80%, a long-term infection will develop.

A long-term chronic infection can result in fibrosis and cirrhosis scarring of the liver, liver cancer or end-stage liver disease. However, the course of a chronic hepatitis C infection is unpredictable and commonly varies from case to case. Some who are infected with the virus experience very little liver damage, even after many years.    

Symptoms

Hepatitis C doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. As a result, a person may have the virus without realising it.

When they do occur, symptoms of the hepatitis C infection may include:

  • flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and a high fever

  • feeling tired all the time

  • a loss of appetite

  • abdominal pain

  • feeling and being sick

Because these symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions, the only way to know if one has hepatitis C is to get tested.

Getting Tested

The only way to know for certain that someone has contracted the hepatitis C virus is through testing. A blood test can be carried out to see if one is infected. Tests can be administered by your local GP, sexual health clinic, genitourinary medicine clinic or drug treatment centre.

Early diagnosis is essential to preventing the onset of liver damage.    

Treatment

Hepatitis C can be treated with medicines that stop the virus from multiplying inside the body. They usually need to be taken for several weeks and are taken in injection and capsule/tablet form. The most common medications include pegylated interferon and ribavirin.

In the event of extreme liver damage, a liver transplant may be required.  

Eradicating Hepatitis C

While there is no vaccine to guard against hepatitis C, there are ways to reduce the risk of becoming infected. These include:

  • not sharing needles and other drug-injecting equipment, such as syringes, spoons and filters, with other people

  • not sharing razors or toothbrushes that might be contaminated with blood

  • using condoms when having sex with a new partner (although contracting the virus through sex is rare)

In January of 2018, the NHS committed to eliminating hepatitis C by 2025, five years earlier than the World Health Organisation goal of 2030.

The NHS invests in hepatitis C treatments each year and continues to introduce new ones as they become available. To date, England is one of the few countries in Europe where oral treatments (verses injections) for hepatitis C are increasing each year.