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What is Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease affecting the liver, caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The infection is often asymptomatic, but once established, chronic infection can progress to scarring of the liver (fibrosis), and advanced scarring (cirrhosis) which is generally apparent after many years. In some cases, those with cirrhosis will go on to develop liver failure or other complications of cirrhosis, including liver cancer.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is spread by blood-to-blood contact. Most people have few, if any symptoms after the initial infection, yet the virus persists in the liver in about 85% of those infected. Persistent infection can be treated with medication, peginterferon and ribavirin being the standard-of-care therapy. 51% are cured overall. Those who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer may require a liver transplant, and the virus universally recurs after transplantation.
An estimated 270-300 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a strictly human disease. It cannot be contracted from or given to any other animal. Chimpanzees can be infected with the virus in the laboratory, but do not develop the disease, which has made research more difficult. No vaccine against hepatitis C is available. The existence of hepatitis C (originally “non-A non-B hepatitis”) was postulated in the 1970s and proved conclusively in 1989. It is one of five known hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D, and E.
Signs and symptoms
Acute hepatitis C refers to the first 6 months after infection with HCV. Between 60% to 70% of people infected develop no symptoms during the acute phase. In the minority of patients who experience acute phase symptoms, they are generally mild and nonspecific, and rarely lead to a specific diagnosis of hepatitis C. Symptoms of acute hepatitis C infection include decreased appetite, fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice, itching, and flu-like symptoms.
The hepatitis C virus is usually detectable in the blood within one to three weeks after infection by PCR, and antibodies to the virus are generally detectable within 3 to 15 weeks. Spontaneous viral clearance rates are highly variable and between 10–60% of persons infected with HCV clear the virus from their bodies during the acute phase as shown by normalization in liver enzymes (alanine transaminase (ALT) & aspartate transaminase (AST)), and plasma HCV-RNA clearance (this is known as spontaneous viral clearance). However, persistent infections are common and most patients develop chronic hepatitis C, i.e., infection lasting more than 6 months.
Previous practice was to not treat acute infections to see if the person would spontaneously clear; recent studies have shown that treatment during the acute phase of genotype 1 infections has a greater than 90% success rate with half the treatment time required for chronic infections.
Sexual activities and practices were initially identified as potential sources of exposure to the hepatitis C virus. More recent studies question this route of transmission. Currently it is felt to be a means of rare transmission of hepatitis C infection. These are simply the current known modes of transmission and due to the nature of Hepatitis there may be more ways that it is transmitted than the current known methods.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
If a woman who is pregnant has risk factors for hepatitis C, she should be tested for antibodies against HCV. About 4% infants born to HCV infected women become infected. There is no treatment that can prevent this from happening. There is a high chance of the baby ridding the HCV in the first 12 months.
In a mother who also has HIV, the rate of transmission can be as high as 19%. There are currently no data to determine whether antiviral therapy reduces perinatal transmission. Ribavirin and interferons are contraindicated during pregnancy. However, avoiding fetal scalp monitoring and prolonged labor after rupture of membranes may reduce the risk of transmission to the infant.
HCV antibodies from the mother may persist in infants until 15 months of age. If an early diagnosis is desired, testing for HCV RNA can be performed between the ages of 2 and 6 months, with a repeat test done independent of the first test result. If a later diagnosis is preferred, an anti-HCV test can performed after 15 months of age. Most infants infected with HCV at the time of birth have no symptoms and do well during childhood. There is no evidence that breast-feeding spreads HCV. To be cautious, an infected mother should avoid breastfeeding if her nipples are cracked and bleeding.
There is a very small chance of clearing the virus spontaneously in chronic HCV carriers (0.5% to 0.74% per year). However, the majority of patients with chronic hepatitis C will not clear it without treatment.
Current treatment is a combination of Pegylated interferon-alpha-2a or Pegylated interferon-alpha-2b (brand names Pegasys or PEG-Intron) and the antiviral drug ribavirin for a period of 24 or 48 weeks, depending on hepatitis C virus genotype. Treatment is generally recommended for patients with proven hepatitis C virus infection and persistently abnormal liver function tests. Sustained cure rates (sustained viral response) of 75% or better are seen in people with HCV genotypes 2 and 3 with 24 weeks of treatment. Sustained responses are rarer with other genotypes, at about 50% in patients with HCV genotype 1 given 48 weeks of treatment and 65% in those with genotype 4 given 48 weeks of treatment. Approximately 80% of hepatitis C patients in the United States have genotype 1. Genotype 4 is more common in the Middle East and Africa.
What is Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus, the virus is very common in Asia, China, Philippines, China, Africa and the Middle east. In Europe and North America the incidence of known carriers is about 1 in a 1000 people. It is estimated that there are 280 million carriers world-wide representing more than 5% of the global population.
Hepatitis B Transmitted
Hepatitis B (HB) is transmitted by the exchange of body fluids e.g. Blood, Semen, Breast Milk and in some circumstances saliva. People most at risk include: Anybody who has unprotected sexual intercourse; IV drug users who share needles and syringes; Health care workers in contact with potentially contaminated blood or body fluids; Babies born to mothers with the virus; Anyone in intimate contact with the infected person. Many cases of acute hepatitis B occur sporadically with no known source and studies have shown that prior unrecognised infection is common.
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