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What is Hepatitis C Virus?

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Hepatitis C (also known as hep C or HCV) is part of a group of hepatitis viruses that attack the liver.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected.  In the United States, the most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus. 

Some groups are more at risk of getting hepatitis C than others, including people who use drugs, people in prisons, men who have sex with men, health workers and people living with HIV.

Before scientists identified HCV in 1989, hepatitis C was called non-A, non-B hepatitis, notes the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, long-term illness. Hepatitis C is often described as “acute,” meaning a new infection, or “chronic,” meaning long-term infection.

How do you get and prevent hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is passed on when infected blood gets into another person’s body. It is very infectious and the virus can stay alive outside the body for up to several weeks.

You can get hepatitis C from sharing contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment during recreational drug use. Banknotes and straws used for snorting may also pass the virus on.

Hepatitis C infection is also passed on in healthcare settings, from needle stick injuries or from medical and dental equipment that has not been properly sterilized. 

Hepatitis C can be passed on via sex without a condom or dental dam with someone who has the virus, even if they don’t have symptoms. Hepatitis C has been detected in semen and vaginal fluids, but infection via these routes is thought to be unlikely.

  • never sharing needles and syringes or other items that may be contaminated with infected blood (even old or dried blood can contain the virus)
  • following the standard infection control precautions, if you’re working in a healthcare setting.

Symptoms

The incubation period for hepatitis C ranges from 2 weeks to 6 months. Many people newly infected with the hepatitis C virus don’t have symptoms, don’t look or feel sick, and therefore don’t know they are infected.

About 70 to 80 percent of people who become infected with acute hepatitis C do not show any symptoms at first, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Jaundice
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Dark urine
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Loss of appetite
  • Joint pain
  • Weight loss

Most people with chronic hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms or have only general symptoms like chronic fatigue and depression.

Tests

Because new HCV infections are usually asymptomatic, few people are diagnosed when the infection is recent. In those people who go on to develop chronic HCV infection, the infection is often undiagnosed because it remains asymptomatic until decades after infection when symptoms develop secondary to serious liver damage.

  • Are 18 years of age and older (get tested at least once in your lifetime)
  • Are pregnant (get tested during each pregnancy)
  • Currently inject drugs (get tested regularly)
  • Have ever injected drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago
  • Have HIV
  • Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
  • Are on hemodialysis
  • Received donated blood or organs before July 1992
  • Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
  • Have been exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C
  • Were born to a mother with hepatitis C

Mother to child

Hepatitis C can be passed on from a pregnant woman to her child during pregnancy and birth, although this is rare. The risk of passing hepatitis on is slightly higher for mothers living with both HIV and hepatitis C (called co-infection).  

If you have hepatitis C and are pregnant, speak to your doctor. They will be able to give you advice on how to keep yourself and your baby safe during pregnancy and birth.

Treatment

Treatment is recommended for all people, including non-pregnant women, with acute or chronic hepatitis C (including children aged ≥3 years and adolescents). 

A new infection with HCV does not always require treatment, as the immune response in some people will clear the infection.

 If you test positive during the acute stage, your doctor may ask you to come back after a few months to retest and to see if you need any treatment.

WHO recommends therapy with pan-genotypic direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) for persons over the age of 12 years. DAAs can cure most persons with HCV infection, and treatment duration is short (usually 12 to 24 weeks), depending on the absence or presence of cirrhosis.

If you’ve already had hepatitis C, it’s advisable to have the vaccination against hepatitis A and B to protect your liver from further damage.

Viral Hepatitis C Surveillance 

Report 2018

By Age
20-29 years: 3.1 cases per 100,000 people
30-39 years: 2.6 cases per 100,000 people
40-49 years: 1.3 cases per 100,000 people

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