Hepatitis C virus
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a virus that exclusively infects the liver and can cause chronic infection. Like Hepatitis B virus, it can also cause an acute hepatitis. However, this is usually mild and often goes unnoticed.
HCV can be transmitted in several ways:
- Around the time of birth from an infected mother (“perinatal”)
- By exposure to infected blood e.g. blood transfusion, sharing needles, open wounds
- Sexual transmission
- Individuals with acute hepatitis C virus infection may have flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle aches and nausea. Jaundice may be present. However, the majority of cases are asymptomatic.
- Chronic hepatitis is also usually asymptomatic before the onset of complications. Many non-specific symptoms may be experienced, including fatigue and depression.
- Liver fibrosis and cirrhosis
- Liver failure
- Liver cancer
- Kidney disease
The diagnosis of HCV infection is done using blood tests. If the blood test for antibodies is positive, this is usually confirmed with a test for HCV DNA in the blood. It may be necessary to perform a liver biopsy to assess the degree of damage to the liver and look for other conditions concurrently affecting it.
Until recently, the treatment of HCV was unpleasant and often unsuccessful. However, a new class of antiviral agents for the treatment of HCV was approved in 2011 (called the "direct-acting antiviral agents" - DAAs), and since then significant advances have been made. Treatment for most strains of HCV is now safe, easy and highly effective. Most infections with HCV can now be cured with a 12-week course of DAAs. Unfortunately, the therapy is expensive and this can hamper treatment.