The hepatitis C virus or HCV reproduces in the liver causing inflammation and possibly cirrhosis or liver cancer. There are six main strains of the virus. In the UK, the most common strains are known as genotype 1 and genotype 3.
The disease can incubate for decades in the body and the exact number of people infected is not known. It is estimated that there are about 215,000 people with the infection in the UK. Most cases are in people who inject illegal drugs. It is estimated that up to half of injecting drug users become infected with hepatitis C.
About 80% of exposed people develop a chronic infection and 20% are able to clear the virus by naturally building immunity. Symptoms are not a reliable way to detect HCV. A blood test is needed to confirm that the virus is present. Symptoms may look the same as HBV and can include:flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and a high temperature (fever); feeling tired all the time; loss of appetite; abdominal pain and feeling and being sick.
Unlike the HIV or the hepatitis B Virus, hepatitis C is spread primarily through contact such as illegal injection drug use; transfusion or transplant from an infected donor; during the tattoo process; occupational exposure to blood mostly needle sticks and it can also be spread through from an infected mother to her unborn baby.
The treatment for hepatitis C can be successful by taking medications for a number of weeks. The infection in the early stages is known as acute and if it continues for several months it is known as chronic. With acute infections, treatment does not always start straight away as it can be monitored by blood tests to see if your body fights the infection. With chronic infections, treatment usually is recommended.
Hepatitis C treatment usually involves making lifestyle changes to prevent further damage to the liver and to reduce the spread of the infection and the administration of one or more drugs.
Medications are often taken for 8 to 48 weeks and this time will vary depending on the strain of the virus. Regular blood tests are taken to check that the medications are working. There can be some side effects of treatment depending on the type of medication, the patient and what other medications they are taking. There are also concerns with giving hepatitis C medications during pregnancy as the drugs can be passed to the unborn baby. In pregnancy, treatment is often delayed until after the birth.
How effective the treatment is will depend on the strain the person has. Genotype 1 used to be hard to treat until quite recently but now the chances of cure are much better. Where treatment for hepatitis C is not successful, different medications are tried or combinations of medications are used to try and clear the infection.
It is important to note that where the virus is successfully cleared with treatment, the patient is not immune from contracting the virus again.