Hepatitis A, B, C, and D are types of viral illness that can affect the liver. While vaccines exist for hepatitis A and B, there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Scientists are working on a vaccine, but challenges specific to hepatitis C have historically made developing the vaccine difficult.
The available treatments for hepatitis C can often cure the disease, but these medications can be costly and take weeks of treatment.
A hepatitis C vaccine could prevent liver damage and the transmission of the virus.
This article will describe the latest progress toward a hepatitis C vaccine, as well as current treatment options.
Researchers discovered the hepatitis C virus in the late 1980s, and they were first able to grow the virus as a cell culture in 2005.
Before this, researchers could not study how medications or vaccines might change the virus.
The hepatitis C virus features seven genotypes, which can differ from each other by as much as 70 percent. The virus also mutates easily, making it difficult for the immune system to keep up.
In addition to these challenges, researchers have yet to identify a suitable animal model on which to test the effectiveness of a vaccine.
Researchers have used rodents and chimpanzees when testing how vaccinations might work in humans. However, the immune systems of animals can often clear the hepatitis C virus, making it difficult to know whether the vaccine or the animal's natural immunity produced results.
Vaccines take time and considerable testing before they become publicly available. They also must prove effective for a majority of people before a company markets them.
Currently, two clinical trials of hepatitis C vaccines are underway. Each uses a different approach to preventing hepatitis C transmission.
The end dates and results of these trials are still unclear, but their continuation shows promise in hepatitis C vaccine research.
A person gets hepatitis C from blood-to-blood contact with an infected person. Sharing needles for intravenous drug use is the most common way to transmit the virus.
However, before 1992, doctors did not routinely test the blood supply in the United States for hepatitis C, so many people may have gotten the disease from blood transfusions.
A person can also get hepatitis C from sex, but this is less common.
To prevent hepatitis C:
- Never share needles, including glucose testing supplies.
- Ensure that tattoo and piercing conditions are sterile, with new needles and strict measures to protect against infection.
- If a person is not in a monogamous relationship in which both partners are hepatitis C-negative, use condoms correctly and consistently.
- In a healthcare setting, follow infection prevention practices, such as wearing gloves and disposing of used needles.
- Always clean dried blood with a bleach solution. A person can get hepatitis C from exposure to dried blood that contains the virus.
- Refraining from sharing personal care items that may have blood on them, such as a toothbrush or razor.
Anyone who may have had blood-to-blood contact with a person who has hepatitis C should ask a doctor about testing.
Doctors prescribe several medications to treat hepatitis C. These are called direct-acting antiretrovirals. They work to stop the hepatitis C virus from replicating and eventually destroy it.
However, because there are several genotypes of hepatitis C, not all treatments work for everyone. A doctor must test to determine which treatment is likely to be the most effective.
A person may have to take more than one treatment to cure hepatitis C, and each treatment may take 8–12 weeks to work. They are also very expensive, costing upwards of $100,000 in the U.S., in some instances.
While medication assistance is available, and some insurance companies pay for treatment, preventing the disease would be significantly more cost-effective.
In addition to medication, doctors may recommend ways to reduce demands on the liver, such as avoiding alcohol and refraining from taking certain medicines, if possible.
While many treatments are available for hepatitis C, a vaccine has the potential to relieve the worldwide burden of the disease. For this reason, finding a vaccine remains a priority.
Anyone who may have any form of hepatitis should speak to a doctor about treatment options.