What is Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease that affects the liver, caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). First identified in 1989, hepatitis C was previously named “non-A, non-B hepatitis”, as the virus responsible for hepatitis C is genetically different from those that cause Hepatitis A or B.
Transmission of hepatitis C occurs solely through blood-to-blood contact. In Canada, the majority of new hepatitis C infections occur through the use of contaminated syringes and other equipment that comes into direct contact with the bloodstream. Sexual transmission for hepatitis C is relatively rare, but the risk is increased if infected blood is present, such as during menstruation or rough sexual practices, and by the presence of other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. Transmission of hepatitis C during pregnancy or childbirth from mother to child holds a risk of approximately 5%. This risk also increases if the mother has both HIV and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C cannot be spread by:
1. Using new or sterilized medical equipment
2. Sneezing or coughing
3. Holding hands or kissing
4. Sharing eating and cooking utensils
5. Sharing the same toilet, shower or bathtub
6. Swimming in the same pool
7. Insect bites
In over 75% of cases, hepatitis C has no noticeable symptoms. The most common symptoms for those who do experience them include fatigue, reduced appetite, muscle and joint soreness, nausea, and abdominal pain. Some people also develop a yellowish tinge to their skin and the whites of their eyes, known as jaundice. After infection, about 15-20% of people are able to fight off the infection within a 2-6 month period. The remaining 80-85% of infected persons will develop chronic Hepatitis C, which has a possibility of causing liver damage of varying levels of severity, liver cancer and/or liver failure. It can take several years for serious health problems to develop from HCV infection.
Currently, the primary method of treatment for hepatitis C is with antiviral medication. Interferon has historically been the drug of choice for dealing with HCV infection, but in recent years newer treatments have proven effective at eliminating the virus without the same flu-like side effects as interferon, and with a relatively short treatment time of 8 to 24 weeks. These new therapies almost always require government or private coverage due to their high cost. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, as there is for hepatitis A and B. This is due to several factors, such as the wide genetic variety within the hepatitis C virus and the difficulty in establishing organized vaccine trials among affected populations. It is also important to note that unlike with hepatitis B, treatment and elimination of hepatitis C does not prevent a second infection of hepatitis C. It is entirely possible to become infected with hepatitis C again even after fighting off the virus once before.
Worldwide, it is estimated that 150 million people are infected with chronic hepatitis C. Approximately 350,000 people die every year due to HCV-related health issues.
Within Canada, the numbers are as follows (taken from 2011 values):
~1% of Canadians (245,000 people total) have chronic hepatitis C (It is estimated that 44% are unaware of the fact that they are HCV+)
~70% of current IV drug users are HCV+
~48% of former IV drug users (including onetime users) are HCV+
~5% of people engaging in samesex relations are HCV+
~3% of Canadian First Nations people are HCV+