What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It is difficult for the human immune system to eliminate the virus from the body, and infection with HCV usually becomes chronic. Over decades, chronic infection with HCV damages the liver and can cause liver failure in some people. In the U.S., the number of new cases of infection with HCV has declined over the last 10 years from a peak of some 200,000 annually to about 19,000 in 2006. When the virus first enters the body, there usually are no symptoms, so these numbers are estimates. Up to 85% of newly infected people fail to clear the virus and become chronically infected. In the U.S., more than three million people are chronically infected with HCV. Infection is most common among people who are 40 to 60 years of age, reflecting the high rates of infection in the 1970s and 1980s. There are 8,000 to 10,000 deaths each year in the U.S. related to HCV. HCV is the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S and is a risk factor for liver cancer.
What is the nature (biology) of the hepatitis C virus?
‘Hepatitis’ means inflammation of the liver. HCV is one of several viruses that can cause hepatitis. It is unrelated to the other common hepatitis viruses (for example, hepatitis A or hepatitis B). HCV is a member of the Flaviviridae family of viruses. Other members of this family of viruses include those that cause yellow fever and dengue.
Viruses belonging to this family all have ribonucleic acid (RNA) as their genetic material. All hepatitis C viruses are made up of an outer coat (envelope) and contain enzymes and proteins that allow the virus to reproduce within the cells of the body, in particular, the cells of the liver. Although this basic structure is common to all hepatitis C viruses, there are at least six distinctly different strains of the virus which have different genetic profiles (genotypes). In the U. S., genotype 1 is the most common form of HCV. Even within a single genotype there may be some variations (genotype 1a and 1b, for example). Genotyping is important to guide treatment because some viral genotypes respond better to therapy than others. The genetic diversity of HCV is one reason that it has been difficult to develop an effective vaccine since the vaccine must generate viral proteins from each genotype.