What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a chronic illness of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Its transmission is caused by contact with infected blood, principally in the form of blood transfusions, medical procedures or injections with contaminated instruments, use of intravenous drugs, tattoos or piercings (perforations).
What are the consequences of hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is characterized by its replication in the liver of the person affected without producing symptoms for long periods of time (10 to 30 years). During this asymptomatic period the liver may suffer progressive damage up to the point of cirrhosis. This complication occurs in approximately 20% of infected people. The people who develop cirrhosis are at risk of becoming seriously ill with liver failure, manifested by:
- Jaundice: Yellow colouring of the skin and eyes.
- Ascites: Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.
- Hepatic encephalopathy: Mental confusion due to accumulation of toxic substances.
- Variceal haemorrhage: Formation of dilated veins in the esophagus (which are known as esophageal varices) which can break and bleed.
How serious is hepatitis C?
According to data provided by the World Health Organisation, there are 170 million people worldwide infected with this virus, being 5 times more common than the AIDS virus. Hepatitis C is the most common indication for liver transplant, a highly expensive and complicated treatment.
What is the treatment for hepatitis C?
The effectiveness of treatments for hepatitis C has gradually improved during the last decade and there are good prospects for better medication in the years to come. The current regime enables the permanent eradication of the virus in 55-60% of cases. Patients who respond to treatment recover from the illness, and even cirrhosis can be reversed. Treatment of hepatitis C currently comprises a combination of a subcutaneous weekly injection, the PEGInterferon (Pegintron or Pegasys) associated with oral medication, ribavirin (Rebetol or Copegus) taken daily. The treatment must be long term (6 to 12 months), with oral medication and injections once a week. This treatment can cause adverse side effects (fever, depression, anemia, among others) which can usually be controlled with the help of a medical team experienced in this treatment. The cost of the medication is high. There is a new generation of antiviral medication, called protease inhibitors (boceprevir and telaprevir), recently approved which increase the effectiveness of the treatment considerably. There is great hope that new direct acting antivirals will be approved to be used in combination.