Edit: A version of this article was published in The Advertiser on September 13, 2011.
July 28th was World Hepatitis day; the day to raise awareness of hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Both are very important diseases: together they cause >1 million annual cases of liver cancer, one of the most deadly cancers. Hepatitis viruses (A, B, … G) are completely different viruses. The thing that they have in common is that they all infect the liver.
You may have heard of Hepatitis C recently, as an anaesthetist was charged with infecting 54 women with Hepatitis C in a Melbourne hospital a few months ago.
The cause of Hepatitis C, the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), was discovered very recently in 1989. But since then, we’ve recognised that 3% of the world’s population have been infected with HCV. Famous patients include Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson, the infamous Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, and stuntman Evel Kinevel.
HCV infects the liver and uses your liver cells as a factory to produce more virus. Each patient can have up to 100000000000 viruses floating through their blood; this is enough virus to infect everyone in the world.
Hepatitis has a stigma – patients are regularly shunned as unclean or immoral. But people can be infected in quite innocuous ways, a scratch exposed to a fleck of infected blood is enough to infect you. People can be infected in many ways: improper usage of medical equipment; sharing tattooing needles (as Pamela Anderson has claimed she got infected); sharing bloody razors (as Chopper Read); or otherwise exchanging blood. Before we could screen blood donors for HCV, getting a blood transfusion was also a big risk (as Evel Kinevel found after one of his big crashes).
If infected, you might not even know. Some patients will get flu-like symptoms or jaundice, yellowing of the skin and eyes. But many patients can be completely asymptomatic and are none the wiser.
While some patients will clear the virus, the majority of infected people will be permanently infected. These patients find out they have hepatitis C after they get a blood check, or decades later infection when their liver fails from liver scarring or they are diagnosed with liver cancer.
Over the course of infection, your immune system attacks the foreign virus and the cells that are making the virus. This means your liver is continually destroyed over decades. Eventually this can lead to scarring the liver, which stop your liver from working. Or it can lead to mutations that cause liver cancer.
We don’t have a good way to stop HCV infection. We do not have a vaccine against HCV. While antivirals can cure patients with HCV, they are only effective against 50% of patients who can afford the expensive long-term treatment. So, medical research into new therapies is incredibly important for us to stop HCV in its tracks.