Hepatitis C (HCV)
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What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus which attacks the liver. Some people will be cured without any long-term effects, and others will become chronic carriers of the virus.
Intravenous drug users are most likely to be affected by Hepatitis C, but studies have shown that transmission is possible by sexual contact with exposure to blood.
How do you get Hepatitis C?
HCV may be transmitted via blood-to-blood contact in the following cases:
- Sharing drug inhalation implements or needles;
- Tattooing or piercing with contaminated equipment;
- An infected mother may transmit the virus to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth;
- An exchange of blood during sexual relations.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?
Often there may be no apparent symptoms.
Some of the following flu-like symptoms may occur:
- Low-grade fever
- Muscular pain
- Loss of appetite
Symptoms associated with a chronic infection that has reached an advanced stage include:
- Dark, coffee-coloured urine (rather than dark yellow urine)
- Discoloured stools
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellowish coloration of the eyes and skin)
Even if you have had no symptoms of the infection for many years, you may still be a carrier of the virus, and you may transmit Hepatitis C to other people.
What are the possible complications of Hepatitis C?
An infected person may become a chronic carrier. Without effective treatment, there is a risk of:
- Liver cancer
How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?
- Blood tests can determine the presence of antibodies between 2 and 13 months after the initial infection.
- The potential damage to the liver can be measured by a biopsy.
What is the treatment for Hepatitis C?
In 15% to 25% of cases, the virus may disappear on its own. Therefore, it is important for patients to heal themselves by getting lots of rest, eating properly and avoiding alcohol and drugs, which put increased strain on an already unhealthy liver.
HCV may be treated by a combination of two medications, which can have harsh side effects. Approximately 50% of patients will respond to treatment. Researchers are currently testing a new drug which may have a higher success rate.
For chronic carriers of the virus:
- Regular medical follow-up visits are essential.
- The vaccines for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B (viruses that also attack the liver) are recommended.
How can Hepatitis C be prevented?
There is no Hepatitis C vaccine.
- Do not share drug inhalation implements or needles.
- Use sterile implements for tattoos and body piercing.
- Practice safe sex.
What are the risks for HIV-positive people?
Being infected by both HIV and HCV (also called “co-infection”) poses several problems and raises some unanswered questions.
The risk of transmission of HCV from a mother to her baby during childbirth is three times higher in the case of co-infection.
The risk of sexual transmission of HCV may also be higher for someone with HIV.
In the case of co-infection, the HCV test is less reliable. Patients may have to take another test to detect the Hepatitis C virus in their blood.
HIV may aggravate diseases linked to HCV. Studies have shown that in the case of co-infection, liver damage is greater. Also, patients are two to three times more likely to develop cirrhosis, and the progression to cirrhosis will be twice as rapid.
Certain HIV medications are filtered by the liver. If the liver is not working properly, there is a stronger likelihood of serious side effects.
However, HCV does not appear to significantly affect the progression of the HIV infection.
Reporting of Hepatitis C is compulsory in Quebec. Public health professionals who diagnose Hepatitis C must inform the Public Health Department of their region.
There is no Hepatitis C vaccine.