Early Diagnosis is the key for Hepatitis C Virus infection

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There are several strains of viral hepatitis, the most common types being A, B, C and E. Out of these, Hepatitis C is one of the serious deadly liver diseases caused by Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) that causes inflammation of the liver. It is highly contagious and spread through contaminated blood. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), 71 million people across the world is estimated to be suffering from chronic HCV infection. In India, HCV is a major health issue owing to the unsafe medical practices such as used injections, dental procedures and intravenous drug use. HCV is curable with oral medicines for a finite duration and treatment is safe and affordable. Treatment of HCV is one of the major breakthroughs in medicine in the last decade or so.

How does Hepatitis C Virus spread?

HCV is a blood borne disease that can spread through infected blood transfusion, sharing needles, or other drug injection equipment, unsafe sexual practices, etc. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother to a baby; however, this mode of transmission is less common. The virus does not spread through food and water.

Common Symptoms

HCV is asymptomatic which means no particular symptoms are shown. The incubation period (onset of signs and symptoms) ranges from 2 weeks to 6 months. Early symptoms such as fatigue and joint pain are not specific to liver infection and may often miss the attention of patient or doctors.

HCV can cause both acute and chronic infection.  Approximately 30% of the infected persons have acute hepatitis which does not lead to life-threatening disease. In such cases, the person is free of the infection within six months with limited medical intervention.

However, 70% of infected persons suffer from chronic HCV infection.  In such conditions, the patient fails to show any symptoms until the disease has progressed.  Around 15% to 20% of patients suffering from chronic HCV are at a higher risk of liver cirrhosis – a condition caused due to scarring of the liver tissue that prevents it from functioning normally.

Diagnosis for Hepatitis C Virus

The detection of HCV is a two-step process:

Step 1: Check for HCV antibodies through a serological test using a small sample of body fluids. Typically, the antibodies usually show up about 12 weeks after infection and helps in diagnosing the condition.

Step 2: A nucleic acid test for HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA) is conducted if the person is tested positive. It helps determine the amount of Hepatitis C virus present in the blood. The RNA test is recommended as 30% of the infected population spontaneously clear presence of HCV due to healthy immune response without treatment.

If detected positive, the patient must undergo an assessment of the degree of liver damage. A biopsy of the liver is conducted where a part of the liver tissue is obtained and tested or through other non-invasive methods. The degree of damage is used as a guide to decide the course of treatment.

Why is early detection important?

Early diagnosis of HCV can help prevent chronic liver disease and further transmission of the virus. Since there is no effective vaccine against HCV yet, it is essential to stay alert and avoid chances of infection. In case of any doubt regarding the symptoms, it is advisable to visit a medical professional and undergo the tests as a safety measure. Detection of HCV in the early stages can help treat patients using oral medication without any significant side effects. Although there is no effective vaccine available for hepatitis C till now, however, newly developed antiviral medications are considered to be effective in the treatment of the disease.

(Authored By Dr Dinesh Kini K, Director – Institute of Digestive and HPB Sciences, Sakra World Hospital)