JEDDAH, Oct. 16: More than 500,000 hepatitis C cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, according to Dr. Khaled Mirghalani, the Health Ministry spokesman. He said the disease has been spreading in the Kingdom at the rate of 1.7 percent annually.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver and a major cause of acute hepatitis and chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Globally, an estimated 170 million people are chronically infected with the virus and three to four million persons are newly infected each year.
Mirghalani said Saudi Arabia participated in the international day for enhancing awareness about hepatitis C. The day was organized by the World Health Organization to combat the deadly disease.
HCV is spread primarily by direct contact with human blood. “The major causes of HCV infection worldwide are use of unscreened blood transfusions, and re-use of needles and syringes that have not been adequately sterilized,” the WHO said.
No vaccine is currently available to prevent hepatitis C and treatment for chronic cases is too costly for most persons in developing countries to afford. Thus, from a global perspective, the greatest impact on hepatitis C disease burden will likely be achieved by focusing efforts on reducing the risk of HCV transmission from blood transfusions and unsafe injection practices and injection drug use.
The WHO, Mirghalani said, has described hepatitis C as a silent epidemic, adding that it would be tracked down in the final stages, after affecting liver. The incubation period of the infection before the onset of clinical symptoms ranges from 15 to 150 days.
In acute infections, the most common symptoms are fatigue and jaundice. But most cases are asymptomatic and carriers can have the virus for years before it begins to cause problems, increasing the chances of the virus being spread.
Hepatitis C is considered chronic; sufferers of the infection are likely to eventually succumb to it or at least require liver transplants to extend their lives. The virus is far more infectious than HIV, and can be spread by all body fluids. People who suffer from hepatitis can go through phases where the viral count in their body is so high they are visibly jaundiced; in this jaundiced state, the carrier’s body fluids, including saliva, have the potential of spreading the virus. When viral counts are normal to low, the person is less infectious and he or she cannot spread the disease through saliva or sexual body fluids; however, their blood remains highly infectious which means that unprotected sexual contact poses a risk of transmission even in this state. With drug treatments the viral count of hepatitis in a human body can be kept down so that carriers are less likely to be able to spread the virus. However, such drugs are costly and not widely available in parts of the world where the virus is more likely to infect people.
There are three main types of hepatitis virus: A is caused by unhygienic conditions and can be spread through feces and poor hygiene at restaurants; B and C are both spread mainly by blood and are also considered sexually transmitted infections. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but not C. Many people don’t get vaccinated for hepatitis B because it requires a series of three injections over a period of about six months. Because hepatitis C has no vaccine and can be easily spread, health officials fear that it could become the next great global pandemic.