Hepatitis C Virus – The celebrity hepatitis

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.

Biohazard cookies! (Cookies by James Kleinig and Gen Sinclair; photo by Thomas Tu)

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.




Filed under Thomas' Corner

6 responses to “Hepatitis C Virus – The celebrity hepatitis

  1. Liz

    This is obviously not the most important thing… but how was that cookie made? Is the biohazard symbol really shiny icing, or is it like a ‘stained glass’ cookie, with the shape cut out and filled with melted boiled sweets/toffee/whatever? Either way I’m impressed!

    Also, I wonder if HCV treatment (i.e. antivirals) is available on the NHS in the UK or similarly for free in other countries with such systems? It would make sense to me – surely it costs less to treat people with antivirals than to treat them for liver failure/cancer.

    • Also about the HCV antiviral treatments, the most common drug that I’ve heard of being used is Ribavirin, which inhibits HCV replication. It is usually used in conjunction with interferon-alpha to boost the immune response. I’m not sure about the NHS in the UK, but it’s on PBS here in Australia.


      • In Australia government-subsidised hepatitis C treatment is available for people who meet the s100 criteria:
        1, a positive hepatitis C PCR result. (PCR test detects the presence of the virus in the blood.)
        2. not pregnant or breastfeeding
        3. using contraception, with both partners taking precautions to prevent pregnancy during and up to 6 months after end of treatment
        4. 18 years or older
        5. have not had interferon treatment before
        Retreatment options on PBS may also be available for people who meet certain conditions. Discuss with your specialist.
        More information available from the Hepatitis C Council of SA – 1300 HEP ABC or http://www.hepccouncilsa.asn.au.

      • Ed: Thanks for that information, Cecilia. Much appreciated.


  2. James Mk II

    Hey Liz, yeah the symbol is from melted boiled sweets, this one displaying the surprisingly high transparency of black boiled lollies. The shape was lightly marked with circular biscuit cutters and then cut out with a number 11 scalpel.

  3. Liz

    Ah, impressive. I’ve not made those kind of cookies since I was a kid, but this giving me ideas!

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