Researchers report that, for the first time ever, they may have a vital new clue in unravelling the mystery of how hepatitis C spreads. This new evidence gives weight to the view that early diagnosis is a good route towards limiting the spread of epidemics. A new piece of research among drug addicts who inject, showed that for every infected person, twenty other people received the infection and half of those were infected in the first twenty-four months of the source, contracting the disease.
How Common Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a massive problem worldwide. It is estimated, more than 180 million people have the virus but the majority of them are unaware of being carriers. This virus is insidious since the outward signs of infection do not make themselves apparent for up to two decades after initial infection. Thus it spreads without carriers ever being aware of the disease they spread. Other pandemic infections such as the influenza virus have an obvious source because the incubation period is just a few days. But for hepatitis C, until now, has spread via an invisible route and blossoming months and even years after infection.
What was exceptional about this latest study, is the use of DNA/RNA decoding of more than 100 samples of the virus taken from the drug users. The scientists based at Oxford university England, researched 4 hepatitis C epidemics that occurred in Greece, between â€˜95 and 2000. There were 943 infected patients in the study. It seems from the study that drug addicts who inject themselves are much more likely to spread the disease and on average infected 20 further people each. At the start of an infection the levels of the virus in the body are very high and this explains the highest cross-infection rates, during the first years of infection.
Armed with this vital new piece of information, screening can be targeted at this group so as to increase the frequency of early diagnosis and thereby preventative measure can be taken to isolate the sufferers and limit the spread. Prevention is not only better than cure it is a damn sight cheaper in the long run too.
Hepatitis and Cancer Risk?
Around one in five of hepatitis C sufferers will suffer from cancer and or scarring of the liver two decades after the point of infection. So advanced is the disease by this time that only a transplant operation will keep the patient alive and these can cost around $160 thousand each. The lessons from this study, give concrete support to the idea of target screening of â€˜at riskâ€™ groups and early diagnosis, plus treatment of drug addicts.
Chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust and president of the World Hepatitis Alliance, notes that:
Â “If we are better able to identify where the majority of transmission is happening in many Western countries, we will be able to improve and more cost effectively target interventions. It needs to be said, however, that globally hepatitis C is not ‘a drug users’ disease. Of the 150 million people living with the virus, only about 10 million are people who inject drugs, according to The Lancet. The vast majority of infections are the result of unsafe healthcare and we equally need to target prevention there.”