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Let’s chat about Hepatitis C Virus

Complements of the season our weekly health columnist. We often hear only about Hepatitis A and B and hardly anything about Hepatitis C which is equally a devastating problem. Kindly use your respected space to enlighten us about it.

 Salamatu V.

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Thanks Salamatu for your question. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus can cause both acute and chronic hepatitis, ranging in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness.

How is it transmitted?

The hepatitis C virus is a blood-borne virus. It is most commonly transmitted through:

  1. 1. Injecting drug through the sharing of injection equipment.
  2. 2. The reuse or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, especially syringes and needles in healthcare settings.
  3. 3. The transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products.
  4. 4. Sexual practices that lead to exposure to blood (for example, among men who have sex with men, particularly those with HIV infection.
  5. 5. HCV can also be transmitted sexually and can be passed from an infected mother to her baby. However, these modes of transmission are less common.
  6. 6. Hepatitis C is not spread through breast milk, food, water or casual contact such as hugging, kissing and sharing food or drinks with an infected person.

What are the symptoms?

The incubation period for hepatitis C ranges from two weeks to six months. Following initial infection, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms. Those who are acutely symptomatic may exhibit:

  • Fever, fatigue and decreased appetite.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Abdominal pain, dark urine and grey-coloured faeces
  • Joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes).

How is it diagnosed?

Because new HCV infections are usually asymptomatic, few people are diagnosed when the infection is recent. In those people who go on to develop chronic HCV infection, the infection is also often undiagnosed because it remains asymptomatic until decades after infection when symptoms develop secondary to serious liver damage.

HCV infection is diagnosed in 2 steps:

  • Testing for anti-HCV antibodies.
  • If the test is positive for anti-HCV antibodies, a nucleic acid test for HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA) is needed to confirm chronic infection.

What are the populations at increased risk of HCV infection?

  • People who inject drugs.
  • People in prisons and other closed settings.
  • People who use drugs through other routes of administration (non-injecting).
  • People who use intranasal drugs.
  • Recipients of infected blood products or invasive procedures in health-care facilities with inadequate infection control practices.
  • Children born to mothers infected with HCV.
  • People with sexual partners who are HCV-infected.
  • People with HIV infection.
  • Prisoners or previously incarcerated persons.
  • People who have had tattoos or piercings.

Treatment options

A new infection with HCV does not always require treatment, as the immune response in some people will clear the infection. However, when HCV infection becomes chronic, treatment is necessary including antiviral therapy.

How to prevent it?

  • Safe and appropriate use of health care injections.
  • Safe handling and disposal of sharp objects and waste.
  • Provision of comprehensive harm-reduction services to people who inject drugs including sterile injecting equipment and effective treatment of dependence.
  • Testing of donated blood for HBV and HCV (as well as HIV and syphilis).
  • Training of health personnel.
  • Prevention of exposure to blood during sex.
  • Hand hygiene, including surgical hand preparation, hand washing and use of gloves; and
  • Promotion of correct and consistent use of condoms.

 

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