What is it?
Hepatitis C is an infection with the Hepatitis C virus, also referred to as HCV. Estimates by Public Health England in 2014 suggest over 214,000 people in the UK are living with a chronic HCV infection. Many more are thought to be infected but do not know it as they have not been diagnosed.
About 75% of people infected with Hepatitis C go on to develop a chronic condition. It can take years, even decades, for symptoms to appear. Many people are unaware they have a problem and, by the time they become ill and seek help, considerable damage has already been done to the liver. This might have been prevented if the person had been diagnosed earlier. In chronic cases, the immune system has been unable to clear the virus and will remain in the body unless medical treatment is given. Most of these people have intermittent symptoms of fatigue, some may have no symptoms at all, but there may be ongoing damage to the liver. It is thought up to 30% of people with chronic Hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis of the liver within 20 years.
Did you know? …
There are thought to be over 214,000 people in the UK with chronic Hepatitis C, over twice as many people than are living with HIV. Click here to see the full article
How can I get it?
HCV can be passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral intercourse as well as body contact, as the virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. One common route is through sharing needles when injecting recreational drugs - nearly 45% of intravenous drug users have contracted HCV in this way. Similarly, it can be caught by having a tattoo or body piercing with equipment that has not been properly sterilised, and by sharing toothbrushes or sharing razors. Also, if you have had an accidental needle stick injury then you should be tested for Hepatitis C along with Hepatitis B and HIV.
HCV can also be caught through medical treatment in developing countries, blood transfusions in the UK (before 1991) or from mother to baby during pregnancy and/or birth. Sexual transmission in extremely rare in monogamous heterosexual couples but there is an increased risk of infection for gay men and the HIV positive community.
How do I know if I have it?
There are often no symptoms at first which is why it is important to get tested regularly, and if you have ever been at risk. Symptoms, if they occur, can include feeling tired, aching limbs, digestive problems and brain fog.
Hepatitis C Testing
You can get a test at Better2Know, either on its own or as part of our Platinum Screen. A blood sample is needed for the test, and the same sample can also be used for any other blood tests you may want to order including all those in our Early Detection Screen. Results for HCV testing are available the same day that your sample is received in the laboratory and, at certain locations, instant Hepatitis C testing is available giving you results in around 20 minutes.
If you test positive your Better2Know doctor will be able to help you with the next steps.
How is it treated?
The virus can be treated with a combination of drugs. These drugs offer the best chance to clear the virus from the body and are shown to be effective in 50-85% of cases as some strains or genotypes of the HCV are more likely to respond than others. Even if the virus is not completely cleared, the treatments can reduce inflammation and scarring of the liver. However, there are new drugs available that are taken alongside these, and even newer ones on the horizon that offer increased chances of success.
Many people also find that a complementary lifestyle helps to cope with symptoms and improve their quality of life.
People with a chronic HCV infection should be seen by a hospital liver specialist for monitoring and to assess suitability for treatment.
If left undetected and untreated, you may have a higher risk of contracting HIV and other STIs through unprotected intercourse. It can also cause chronic inflammation of the liver (fibrosis) or cirrhosis and may lead to liver cancer. If you are a woman who is pregnant, then the risk of transmission to your baby can be minimised by your midwife who will be able to advise you.
About one in five people with a chronic HCV condition develops cirrhosis of the liver within 20 years.