Americans Harvey J Alter and Charles M Rice, and British scientist Michael Houghton were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on Monday for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can all cause hepatitis. However, hepatitis is often caused by a virus. In the United States, the most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus.
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are liver infections caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they are spread in different ways and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also begin as short-term infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body and causes chronic (long-term) infection. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B; however, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. It can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, long-term illness. It is often described as “acute,” meaning a new infection, or “chronic,” meaning long-term infection.
- Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the virus. It can be a short-term illness, but for most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.
- Chronic hepatitis C can be a lifelong infection if left untreated. Chronic infection can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and even death.
How is hepatitis C spread?
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when someone comes into contact with blood from an infected person. This can happen through:
►Sharing drug-injection equipment.
Today, most people become infected with it by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.
Approximately 6% of infants born to infected mothers will get it.
Although uncommon, people can become infected when health-care professionals do not follow the proper steps needed to prevent the spread of bloodborne infections.
►Sex with an infected person.
While uncommon, it can spread during sex, though it has been reported more often among men who have sex with men.
►Unregulated tattoos or body piercings.
It can spread when getting tattoos or body piercings in unlicensed facilities, informal settings, or with
►Sharing personal items.
People can get infected from sharing glucose monitors, razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, and other items that may have come into contact with infected blood, even in amounts too small to see.
►Blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Before widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992, hepatitis C was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Now, the risk of transmission to recipients of blood or blood products is extremely low.
It is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or water.
Who is at risk for hepatitis C?
The following people are at increased risk :
- People who use injection drugs or did so in the past, even those who injected only once many years ago
- People with HIV infection
- People with certain medical conditions, including those who ever received maintenance hemodialysis and those with persistently abnormal alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels (an enzyme found within liver cells).
- People who have received transfusions or organ transplants, including those who
- received clotting factor concentrates produced before 1987
- received a transfusion of blood or blood components before July 1992
- received an organ transplant before July 1992
- were notified that they received blood from a donor who later tested positive for hepatitis C virus infection
- Health care, emergency medical, and public safety personnel who have been exposed to the blood of someone who has hepatitis C (through needle sticks, sharps, or mucosal exposures)
- Children born to mothers who have hepatitis
Many people newly infected with the hepatitis C virus don’t have symptoms, don’t look or feel sick, and therefore don’t know they are infected. For people who develop symptoms, they usually happen 2–12 weeks after exposure to the hepatitis C virus and can include yellow skin or eyes, not wanting to eat, upset stomach, throwing up, stomach pain, fever, dark urine, light-colored stool, joint pain, and feeling tired.
Most people with chronic hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms or have only general symptoms like chronic fatigue and depression. Many people eventually develop chronic liver disease, which can range from mild to severe and include cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. Chronic liver disease in people with hepatitis C usually happens slowly, without any signs or symptoms, over several decades. Chronic hepatitis virus infection is often not recognized until people are screened for blood donation or from an abnormal blood test found during a routine doctor’s visit.