Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the liver (from the Greek 'hepatos' meaning 'of the liver' combined with 'it is' which means 'inflammation'). Hepatitis A, B and C describe three different viruses which cause inflammation of the liver. Whereas there are vaccines for Hepatitis A and B there is currently no vaccine for Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a member of the 'flavivirus' family of RNA (ribonucleic) viruses and itself has three different strains (a, b and c). It was discovered by medical science in 1988 and a test for the virus was developed and in use from 1990 (in Australia).

How may people have Hepatitis C?

Current statistics from Hepatitis Australia estimate that there are more than 230,000 people in Australia living with chronic Hepatitis C, with around 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?

There are often no symptoms at all, however the following symptoms may appear...

  • Lack of hunger
  • Fatigue (weakness/tiredness)
  • Muscle and/or joint pain
  • Loss of weight
  • Nausea

Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver

Hepatitis C can ultimately cause cirrhosis of the liver (scarring of the liver) and the symptoms of this condition are...

  • Fluid build up in the lungs
  • Swelling of the abdomen and/or legs
  • Difficulty taking in a full breath
  • A feeling of being full (even when you have not had a meal)
  • Jaundice, ie where the skin or the whites of the eyes turn a yellow colour and uring becomes dark in colour
  • Sudden 'attacks' of confusion

Sever cirrhosis can also cause a person to become comatose, ie fall into a coma.

How is Hepatitis C transmitted?

Hepatitis C is a blood borne disease, that is, it can only be transmitted via the blood. The following are the main methods of infection...

  • Sharing drug needles* or straws used to take some drugs (eg cocaine)
  • Sharing needles that have been used by others for tattooing, body piercings or acupuncture (where these have not been sterilised to medical standards)
  • Sharing household items which may have small amounts of blood on them eg toothbrushes, razors
  • If unsterilised medical equipment has been used for eg vaccinations or other medical procedures
  • Accidental exposure to blood or blood products eg needlestick injuries
  • Blood transfusion prior to 1990 in Australia (in Australia prior to Feb 1990 transfusion blood was not tested for Hepatitis C)
  • Pregnancy/childbirth - a mother carrying the Hepatitis C virus has a 5% chance of passing the virus on to her newborn child
  • Some sexual practices where blood-to-blood contact may occur
    How can you prevent infection with Hepatitis C?

As well as avoiding all of the high risk situations described above, where there is a possibility of being exposed to blood or blood products, infection control guidelines should be followed.

How is Hepatitis C treated?

It is estimated that up to a third of people who contract the Hepatitis C virus are naturally clear of the infection within 6 months without treatment. This means they are no longer infectious but will carry the antibodies in the their blood for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately these antibodies do not stop reinfection.

If Hepatitis C is still present in the bloodstream after 6 months it is referred to as 'chronic hepatitis C'. Up to 20% of sufferers of chronic hepatitis C will go on to develop cirrhosis. This can take up to 40 years to develop.

Drug combination treatment (taken orally) can cure > 90% of cases of chronic hepatitis C and these new drug combinations do not have the side effects of previous treatment regimes, which could cause mental health issues.

Speak to your GP or see a Specialist to discuss about the best treatment option suited for you.