Statistics say that there are between 130 and 150 million people worldwide infected by the hepatitis C virus (1). A large chunk of this number develops serious conditions, such as liver cancer or cirrhosis (2, 3) and approximately 700 thousand people die from the disease every year. This makes hepatitis C one of the most serious and debilitating diseases of today. This is why people need to understand and get familiarized with the causes of hepatitis C.
The most affected regions of the virus are Central Asia, East Asia, and Africa (4), but there are cases to be found all around the world. Even though medicine today is highly advanced compared to what we knew about hepatitis C in the past, there are still many things that need to be discovered. Still, the way of transmitting this virus is already documented and thoroughly researched.
Hepatitis C is a tiny, colorless virus that reaches about 50 nanometers, seen in diameter (5). In other words, a centimeter of this virus would contain around 200 thousand hepatitis C units. Once a person is infected with this virus, it starts producing genetic variations inside the patient’s body, which means that the mutated forms in every person are different from those of the one that infected them (6). This is why the immune system does not recognize the virus and it cannot eliminate it successfully. The HCV strains that are mutated in the body become predominant (7).
When a person becomes infected due to any hepatitis C causes, the body may develop antibodies, but people never become immune against this virus (8). Also, this is why hepatitis C patients are more susceptible to infections (9).
There are 6 genotypes and fifteen subtypes of hepatitis C (10), varying according to biological effects such as mutation rates, replication process, liver damage type, liver damage severity, detection, and treatment options.
The common misconception is that hepatitis C can be passed on from one person to another through a simple sneeze or cough, or casual physical contact, such as holding hands (11). But that is simply not true. Hepatitis C is contagious, yet it is not transmitted in the way that most people believe it is.
Summary: Hepatitis C infects 130-150 million people worldwide. This is a very serious disease because approximately 700,000 people die every year from it. It’s important to become familiar with how to prevent the spread of this debilitating disease. There are 6 genotypes and 15 subtypes, and they all vary in liver damage severity, type, detection, and treatment.
Table of Contents
Causes of Hepatitis C
1. Infected Blood Transfusion
You can get infected with hepatitis C through infected blood from a person who carries the virus (12, 13). When a contact with blood is made, the illness is transferred. This is why the most common way of spreading hepatitis C is through blood transfusions.
During the years between 1970 and 1980 blood transfusions were the most common way of transmission of hepatitis C (14). At this time, post-transfusion hepatitis reached an incredible percentage of even 10. Hepatitis C is a transfusion-transmitted infection, but this is something that has been significantly reduced because the screening procedures of blood have been highly improved since 1992. In 1990, the rates went down to 5 percent, while in 1993 the percent was lowered to one.
However, there are many other ways to get infected with hepatitis C.
Summary: People get hepatitis C by exposure to infected blood from someone who carries the virus. Therefore, when a contact with infected blood is made, the illness is transferred. The most common way of spreading hepatitis C is through blood transfusions. This has been significantly reduced since 1992 when screening procedures were put in place.
Aside from transfusion transmitting, hepatitis is also spread by other mediums, such as the use of IV drugs (15, 16). Injection drug users have been reported to account for a grand portion of hepatitis C infections on a worldwide level. More specifically, 40 percent of the infections on a worldwide level come as a result of injecting drugs. This is because recreational drug users rarely take care of sterilizing the needles and they use unsterilized syringes needles and other types of equipment that may have been in contact with the blood of a patient with Hepatitis C (17, 18).
Aside from these ways, the disease is also contagious in cases of acupuncture (19), surgical or diagnostic instruments (20), unsanitary tattoos (21), organ transplants (22), and sexual contact (23). However, in the case of sexual contact, the risk is extremely low. Actually, spreading hepatitis C via sexual intercourse is a rare way of getting this virus (24). The statistics are one out of 190 thousand sexual contact instances.
Summary: Other exposure risks include injectable drug use, acupuncture, surgical or diagnostic instruments, unsanitary tattoos, organ transplants, and sexual contact. 40% of the infections worldwide are a result of injecting drugs, mainly because recreational drug users rarely take care of sterilizing needles and syringes. Spreading the virus through sexual contact is very low, with a rate of 1 in 190,000 occurrences.
People are at higher risk of getting infected through sexual intercourse if they are HIV positive (25), engage in rough sexual activities (26), have multiple sex partners (27), have STI or a sexually transmitted infection of any kind and are not using condoms (28).
Aside from these ways, hepatitis C is also transmitted through semen and saliva (29). Still, this is an extremely rare situation, but still possible. Using personal items of a person who carries the virus puts people at risk, especially if we are talking about things that have contact with the hepatitis C patient’s blood. Using a toothbrush or a razor of a person who has hepatitis C is very risky.
In very few cases, hepatitis C is spread in the household with direct exposure to the infected person’s blood with the skin of a healthy person (30).
People who are employed in healthcare settings are at higher risk of getting infected, especially those who work with blood transfusion (31). The virus does not only transmit through blood but can also live on disposal containers and on surfaces (32). Therefore, handling the materials used for blood transfusion or that had any contact with blood must be done with utmost care.
Right now, over 40 percent of infected people do not know how they get infected and there is no way of identifying the source.
Summary: People are at higher risk if they have HIV, multiple sex partners, an STI, not been using condoms, or engage in rough sexual activities. Hepatitis C can be transmitted through semen and saliva. It’s best not to use anything that comes in contact with the bodily fluids or blood of an infected person. Healthcare workers also need to take extra precautions because the virus can live on surfaces.
2. Mother to infant transmission
When a mother carries a child and is infected by hepatitis C, the baby is at risk of getting the disease (33). However, the percentage of HCV transmission from a mother to an infant is relatively low, which means that a baby does not necessarily acquire the virus because they stayed in an infected body. Only 5 out of 100 babies are infected with the HCV-positive virus, but the risk is greatly increased if the mother carries both the virus and the HIV infection (34).
People think that breastfeeding immediately leads to hepatitis C transferring when the mother is infected, but the only way a child can be infected is if the mother has cracks and sore on her nipples (35). However, breastfeeding a child is never a good idea when the mother is a carrier of the virus.
Summary: If a pregnant mother is infected with hepatitis C, her baby is also at risk of getting the disease. It is a low transmission percentage, which means there is a chance the baby won’t get the virus. 5 out of 100 babies are infected with the virus. Breastfeeding is not recommended when a mother is infected with the virus.
Is Hepatitis C contagious?
The most common misconception about the transmission of this disease is that when an infected person coughs and sneezes in front of you, you will get infected. Actually, this particular virus is a blood-borne one (36), which rejects this theory. This means that the primary way of spreading from one person to another is through blood.
Summary: The primary transmission of hepatitis C is through the blood. This means if someone sneezes or coughs near you who is infected, you are not at risk for contracting the disease. There is a smaller risk of getting the virus if you come in contact with an infected person’s saliva or semen. It is best to not share anything (toothbrush, razor) that comes in contact with an infected person’s blood, saliva, or semen.
Seventy to ninety percent of all people infected with HCV are chronic carriers (37), which means that they never clear the virus. This can be a problem since hepatitis that is not cured often leads to life-threatening and severe problems to the patient’s liver, such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Unfortunately, there are over 350 thousand people who die because of such diseases each year. In order to avoid and prevent such complications, people need to check for their health and address the condition as soon as they are diagnosed with it. Treating hepatitis C early is the best way to stop the disease from ruining your health or even killing you.