Written by Margaret Hellard for The Conversation
Hepatitis C is a hidden epidemic affecting 170 million people worldwide. Hepatitis C kills nearly 700 Australians every year, mostly from chronic liver failure and liver cancer, and costs over $78.9 million in diagnosis and treatment.
Around 230,000 Australians have chronic hepatitis C infection and 6,600 to 13,200 new infections occur every year.
It’s a blood-borne virus, so people who inject drugs have a high prevalence of the infection and the greatest risk of transmission. Although uncommon it can also be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact during sex, sharing razor blades, or using unsterile medical or tattooing equipment.
In Australia the two main hepatitis C genotypes are genotype 1 and 3, occurring in about 55% and 35%-40% of people of people infected with hepatitis C respectively. However genotype is not known to significantly impact on the severity of illness.
Hepatitis C can be treated with a combination of drugs called pegylated interferon and ribavirin – self-administered weekly injections for 24 to 48 weeks and twice-daily capsules. The current treatment comes with a number of unpleasant and serious side effects such as nausea, fever, depression and the risk of birth defects if users become pregnant. Worst of all, the cure rate is less than 75%.
Consequently, few Australians undergo treatment (less than 3,000 people in 2012) and the idea that hepatitis C could be eradicated has long seemed a distant possibility.
But recent advances in hepatitis C treatment give reason for optimism.
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