Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV can cause both acute and chronic hepatitis infection, ranging in severity from a mild illness that lasts only a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness resulting in cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The virus is mainly acquired by contact through broken skin with infectious blood. In Europe, the main route of HCV transmission is via injecting drug use as a result of sharing contaminated needles. More rarely, the virus can be transmitted sexually, in healthcare settings due to inadequate infection control practices or perinatally from an infected mother to the baby.
A silent disease with no symptoms
Most people with acute HCV infection do not have any symptoms. Those who develop chronic infection are often asymptomatic until decades after infection when symptoms develop secondary to serious liver damage.
Around 30% of people with chronic hepatitis C suffer from liver damage and a small number of those develop cancer. Hepatitis C is considered to be one of the leading causes of liver cancer and liver transplants in Europe.
HCV: no vaccine but a cure
The infection can be cured, especially if it is detected and treated with the appropriate antiviral drug combinations. Antiviral treatment can now cure over 90% of persons with HCV infection.
In terms of prevention, there is currently no effective vaccine available against hepatitis C and the most effective preventive measures to reduce the risk of exposure to HCV include education, harm reduction programmes targeted towards people who inject drugs and the implementation of robust infection control practices in healthcare settings.