Pathogens and transmission
Hepatitis C is a liver inflammation caused by an infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). As the pathogen is primarily transmitted through the blood of an infected person, the risk of an infection lies primarily in the sharing of syringes, medical procedures with insufficiently sterilised instruments, the use of non-sterile instruments for tattoos or piercings or injuries with the latter. Blood transfusions in countries where donor blood is not tested for antibodies can also be a source of infection.
Sexual transmission of the virus is very rare. There seems to be a significant risk of infection in some groups, however, e.g. in men who have group sex with men, especially if they have an HIV co-infection. HCV transmission from mother to child during birth is possible but rare.
In 75 % of cases of people newly infected with the hepatitis C virus the infection progresses with no symptoms. In the remaining 25 % of cases, people develop symptoms six to nine weeks (up to a maximum of six months) after having been infected. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Other possible symptoms are fever and joint pain. 5 to 10 % of the infected persons also develop jaundice. 20 to 30 % of infected persons recover from the infection without treatment after six months. However, this does not protect them against Hepatitis C and they may therefore become infected again.
Often chronic progress but can be cured
70 to 80 % of infected patients do not recover spontaneously from the virus within six months and develop a chronic infection (the virus remains in the liver). People who are chronically infected mostly live for years without any symptoms. In ca. 5 to 30 % of cases, patients develop liver cirrhosis after several decades (scarring of the liver tissue). These patients have an increased risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral drugs. In over 90 % of cases, patients treated can be cured, but this does not protect them from being infected by the virus again.
Frequency and distribution
In Switzerland, about 0.5 % of the population are infected with the hepatitis C virus, while worldwide figures average around 1 %. The number of people reported with acute hepatitis C has remained stable in Switzerland since 2006; about 50 new cases are reported each year. The share of men is consistently high, amounting to around 70 %; young adults 20 to 39 years old are also affected to a significant degree (about 60 to 65 % of cases). The majority of newly diagnosed infections can be traced back to intravenous drug use.
There is no vaccination against hepatitis C. Protection against an infection consists primarily in avoiding contact of blood from another person with your own body through skin lesions, wounds or mucous membranes. In particular, syringes should not be shared and all practices involving pricks or injuries with instruments that are badly or not sterilised at all should be avoided.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted through hazardous sex, primarily through contact of blood and mucous membranes. This is why it is also important to avoid contact with any blood during sexual intercourse.