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What causes hepatitis C? Facts about the hepatitis C virus

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Hepatitis C virus

Story at-a-glance -

  • Chronic hepatitis C affects 71.1 million people worldwide, and a significant number of these will develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer
  • At least 399,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver disease per year
  • In 2014, an expanded classification notes that hepatitis C has seven basic genotypes and 67 subtypes

According to a study in The Lancet, chronic hepatitis C affects 71 million people worldwide.1 A significant number of these will develop complications like liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. The World Health Organization notes that 399,000 people died from hepatitis C-related liver disease in 2016, the latest data available.2

HCV remains to be one of the most debilitating diseases today, but many people are still unfamiliar with the main causes of this illness: the hepatitis C virus. This virus is found worldwide, with North 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.3

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. HCV is an extremely small virus, measuring only about 55 nanometers in diameter. It’s described as an “enveloped, positive-strand RNA virus.”4

One defining characteristic of the hepatitis C virus is that it mutates frequently and rapidly. One 2009 study notes that this virus is very successful at surviving in its host because of its “rapid evolutionary dynamics, which allow it to evade the immune response.”5

Here’s what happens: When you become infected with HCV, the virus produces different genetic variations, called “viral escape mutations,”6 of itself inside your body. Since these mutated forms are significantly different from the original form, your immune system’s T-cells cannot recognize them. As a result, your immune system finds it difficult to keep up and produce antibodies for HCV, as thousands of genetic variations are made every day.7,8 The mutated HCV strains then overpower your immune system, leading to chronic infection.

What’s more, whether the infection progresses to chronic liver disease or not, if you have this virus in your body, and your immune system has not eliminated it, then you will carry it throughout your entire lifetime.9

Hepatitis C genotypes: Classification of this disease

In 2000, hepatitis C had only six basic genotypes and 15 subtypes identified, which amount to 21 different variations.10 A more recent study, however, expands this classification. According to the researchers, there are seven hepatitis genotypes and 67 subtypes.11

These differences are not yet fully understood, and are still being studied today. However, knowing the type that you’re carrying is crucial for knowing the treatment options for this disease. Some people can only have one dominant HCV genotype, but others may have more than one infection at a time — this is referred to as “mixed infection.”12

MORE ABOUT HEPATITIS C

Hepatitis C: Introduction

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C in Pregnancy

How Do You Get Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C Duration

Is Hepatitis C Contagious?

Hepatitis C Causes

Hepatitis C Types

Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C Treatment

Hepatitis C Prevention

Hepatitis C Diet

Hepatitis C FAQ

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