Apparently hepatitis C is one of the leading cause of liver transplantation and because there’s no vaccine for the disease, so it certainly is something that we should be aware of the fact that you’ve chosen to read this blog post shows you want to know more about the disease.
So let us just start by asking what exactly is hepatitis C… Well, hepatitis C is one of the viruses that can cause inflammation in the liver. It often does not show any symptoms and people might live with it throughout their life not knowing they are infected.
If it happens to show symptoms and gets treated promptly, hepatitis C virus can potentially be eliminated from the body. However in some cases, it progresses to become chronic infection and even become life-threatening when the damaged liver becomes hardened with scars forming on its surface. This is a condition we called liver cirrhosis.
It is important for us to distinguish hepatitis C virus from other hepatitis viruses like hepatitis A and E virus because they have different causes, different way of transmission and are much easier to recover than hepatitis C.
There are also hepatitis virus B and D, but I’ll rather not get into it today in this post. The hepatitis C virus is a blood-borne virus that is transmitted through blood.
Let’s go through how can it be transmitted from one person to another…
One more the more common ways is through injecting equipment. So people that have used injected-drugs through used needles have a higher risk of contracting the Hepatitis C.
This is more common among drug addicts or medical personnel like doctors, nurses who accidentally get needle-prick by needle containing the virus.
We should know that this is not the only way a person can get infected with hepatitis C virus. Before the 1990’s when blood screening regulations have not yet been imposed, it is possible to get it through blood donation or some medical procedures.
Apart from that, there is a small risk of transmission from an infected mother to her baby. There can be other subtle means of transmission such as the sharing of tooth brushes.
When one person has a bleeding gum, the virus may invade into the bloodstream through the damaged skin.
Basically, manicures and pedicures equipments can also be contaminated with blood and may serve as another mode of transmission for hepatitis C.
How do people find out they have hepatitis C?
As I explained earlier, there’s a good chance that people who are infected wouldn’t know they have contracted the disease. The only sure way to find out is through a blood test.
Nowadays pregnant ladies will get routinely tested for hepatitis C but for the rest of the people, they may end up getting tested if they had gone to the doctors and complained of unusual tiredness, discomfort around the right-sided abdomen, or other symptoms that may raise the alert of the doctor to the possibility of liver abnormalities.
This is carried out in combination with risk factors checking. The doctor may ask some questions to find out whether the person had any personal or medical history that puts the him/her in the risk of getting infected by the disease.
The first thing the doctor would usually do is an antibody test to look whether the body has triggered any immune response to the hepatitis C virus that shows in the antibodies.
For a small percentage of people have been infected with hepatitis C, their immune system manages to completely destroy the virus.
In other words, they still have the antibodies but the virus is no longer in their blood. So to confirm whether the infection is actively going on, there’s another level of investigation which is to find the presence of the virus itself.
What happens after that?
People who are infected can suffer from serious consequences but the disease is slow developing in nature. So it may take years or even up to decades before complications occur.
Once infected, they may occasionally show symptoms associated with liver illness like yellow discolouration of the eye (jaundice).
The good news is about 45% of the people who are tested positive with the virus and antibodies in their body, their liver manages to cope quite well for the course of over years.
It’s only about 40 years or so later on, the liver of some of these people begins to show some form of functional decompensation. In rare cases, liver cancer might happen to susceptible individuals.
Who should be screened for hepatitis C infection?
Certainly, people who have shared injecting needles and equipments that are involved in injecting drugs should get tested. People who have been transfused before 1990 or done medical procedures overseas should also be checked.
This is because they might not have the same screening regulations that we have here. Also, if you have tattoos or body piercings done by a non-accredited tattooist long time ago, you might also fall into the high risk group for hepatitis C infection.
What can be done if someone gets tested positive?
As I’ve already mentioned, they should be the presence of antibodies and hepatitis C virus in the blood itself should someone be infected by the disease. Fortunately, it can be treated quite effectively.
In fact, treatment modalities have improved over the years and up to 85% of chances that the virus will be completely eradicated from the body. The first line treatment consists of a combination of a couple of anti-viral drugs.
Depending on the type of virus in your body or the severity of the disease, the duration of treatment ranges between 24 to 48 weeks.
The drugs used to treat hepatitis C like interferon is a form of chemotherapy. Therefore, different people have different tolerance to the drugs, some might experience more side effects than others.
It also requires a co-operative patient who’s compliant to the treatment regime for the disease to be effectively cured.
Due to the fact that the disease progresses fairly slowly, so people can wait for the right time to start on the treatment regime.
For example, if you want to conceive a child you cannot be on this treatment because some of the drugs are known to be teratogenic to the developing fetus.
The social stigma
Often there’s negative social stigma around people who have hepatitis C. Some people even have a misconception that hepatitis C is a sexually transmitted disease.
Although it can be transmitted that way, in the case where blood is present in the sexual act, it is not the only way the disease can be spread.
Hepatitis C also has its stigma coming from it being an injecting drug users disease. People who have the disease might often feel responsible or guilty due to fear of discrimination from the society.
Therefore, they do feel that it’s something humiliating to talk openly about. Due to that, it makes the treatment process very difficult.
So If you recognize that you have any of the risk factors or might have contracted the disease, you might want to seek advice from your GP and ask for a test to confirm the diagnosis.
I reassure you, the disease is not as deadly as you think and the chances of full recovery are very, very optimistic. Most importantly, you are not less of a human just because you have a medical condition that needs to be treated.