According to the World Health Organization (WHO), chronic hepatitis C affects anywhere between 130 to 150 million people worldwide, and a significant number of these will develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer.1
At least 700,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver disease per year.2 There’s no doubt that HCV is one of the most debilitating diseases today, but the truth is that many people are not familiar with the main causes of this illness: the hepatitis C virus.
This virus is found worldwide, with Africa and Central and East Asia being the most affected regions. What’s more, it has multiple strains that vary from one region to another.
Basic Facts About the Hepatitis C Virus
There’s still a lot to discover about the hepatitis C virus, although how it is transmitted has already been well documented. It is an extremely small virus, measuring only about 50 nanometers in diameter. This means that if you line up 200,000 hepatitis viruses from end to end, they would only be a centimeter long.
The virus is also colorless because of its small size. In fact, it’s smaller than the wavelength of visible light.3
Another defining characteristic of the hepatitis C virus is that it mutates frequently. It is actually a single-stranded RNA virus, which means that the genetic code of every virus particle is contained within a continuous piece of the nucleic acid RNA.4
Once you have been infected with it, the virus produces different genetic variations of itself within your body. Since these mutated forms are significantly different from their “ancestor,” your immune system cannot recognize them.
So what happens then is that even if your immune system starts to successfully eliminate one variation, the mutated HCV strains will take over and become new predominant strains.
This means that even if you develop antibodies to HCV, you do not become immune against the disease — this is what sets it apart from other viruses. It’s also the reason why people infected with the virus become susceptible to chronic HCV infection.
What’s more, whether the infection progresses to chronic liver disease or not, if you have this virus in your system, then you will carry it (and you are contagious) throughout your entire lifetime.5
Hepatitis C Genotypes: Classification of This Disease
Hepatitis C has six basic genotypes and 15 subtypes, which amount to 21 different variations. These vary not only in their prevalence in different regions around the world, but also according to their biological effects, including:
• Replication process
• Mutation rates
• Type and severity of liver damage
• Treatment options
These differences are not yet fully understood, and are still being studied today. However, these variations are what make development of treatment options for the disease — and even detection of this illness – challenging. An infected person can harbor different variations of HCV, but the immune system may not effectively target all of these variations.
There’s also no guarantee that a test or treatment against one strain will work on all of them, or that even if you successfully “cure” one strain, the other strains will re-infect you.6