Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)


Published: 03 October 2022

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne infection that causes inflammation and damage to the liver and is a leading cause of liver cancer. It's caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) (WHO 2022; Hepatitis Australia 2020a).

Prior to March 2016, hepatitis C treatment in Australia involved weekly injections and oral medications that were known to bring on unwanted side effects and health complications. Today, however, chronic hepatitis C is curable with oral medications known as direct acting antivirals (DAAs), which have limited side effects and in most cases, only need to be taken for eight weeks (Mayo Clinic 2021; Health NSW 2019).

Prevalence of Hepatitis C

In 2020, over 115,000 people were estimated to be living with chronic hepatitis C in Australia (Hepatitis Australia 2022).

Globally, that number is close to 58,000,000 people (WHO 2022)

Rates of hepatitis C are disproportionately high in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islader Peoples make up 3% of the Australian population, yet, in 2015, they accounted for 16% of cases of chronic hepatitis C. This is related to a variety of social and cultural determinants of health, many of which are due to the ongoing effects of colonisation - in particular, over-incarceration, which places Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in prison environments where injecting equipment is commonly shared (Kirby Institute 2021; Hepatitis NSW 2019)

How is Hepatitis C Transmitted?

It’s a common misconception that hepatitis C can be transmitted by social contact such as kissing, hugging or sharing food. This is not the cause of hepatitis C transmission (Hepatitis Australia 2020a).

Transmission of hepatitis C in Australia occurs as a result of:

  • Coming into contact with non-sterile tattooing, body piercing and acupuncture instruments
  • During childbirth, from mother to infant, if the mother has high levels of the hepatitis C virus in her blood (there is about a 5% chance of this occuring)
  • Needle stick injuries and accidental exposure to infected blood or blood products in occupational settings
  • Through transfusion of infected blood or blood products in Australia before screening was introduced in 1990
  • Sharing personal items that have traces of blood on them such as razors, toothbrushes or floss
  • Through non-sterile medical and dental procedures, particularly in countries where hepatitis C is more common.

(Better Health Channel 2021; Hepatitis Australia 2020)

safe tattooing procedures eliminate the risk of spreading hepatitis C
People can contract hepatitis C by coming into contact with non-sterile tattooing, body piercing and acupuncture instruments.

Types of Hepatitis C

Acute Hepatitis C

  • A person with acute hepatitis C will spontaneously recover without treatment
  • ‘Acute’ in this context is defined as a period of hepatitis C that lasts for less than six months
  • Acute hepatitis C is usually asymptomatic
  • Between 15 and 45% of people with a HCV infection will experience acute hepatitis C.

(WHO 2022)

Chronic Hepatitis C

  • Chronic hepatitis means at the virus will stay in the liver indefinitely until cured
  • Without appropriate treatment, this may result in liver failure or liver cancer
  • Between 55 and 85% of people with hepatitis C will develop a chronic infection.

(WHO 2022)

Who is at Risk of Hepatitis C?

People who:

  • Work in healthcare and may be exposed to infected blood
  • Have injected drugs recently or in the past
  • Have spent time in prison
  • Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992
  • Have a mother with a hepatitis infection
  • Have HIV
  • Have a sexual partner who is HIV positive or lives with hepatitis C
  • Had haemodialysis treatment
  • Have been born, or have undergone medical procedures, in a country with high rates of hepatitis C
  • Have received a tattoo or piercing in unsafe, unclean circumstances
  • Have had blood-to-blood contact with another person.

(Health NSW 2019; Mayo Clinic 2021)

Hepatitis C Symptoms

woman with hepatitis C has hepatitis symptoms and pain
Most cases of hepatitis C are asymptomatic.
  • Darkened urine
  • Pale or grey faeces
  • Yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, joint pain, general malaise, tiredness, soreness under ribs)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea, possibly with vomiting.

(Health NSW 2019; WHO 2022)

Symptoms may appear between two weeks and six months following exposure to the virus, but most cases are asymptomatic (WHO 2022).

Unfortunately, people with chronic hepatitis C often do not experience symptoms until their liver is damaged, which in some cases takes years. For this reason, it’s vital that patients get tested for hepatitis C if they think they may have been exposed to the virus (Hepatitis Australia 2020b).

Hepatitis C Diagnosis

There are two different blood tests that can be used to diagnose hepatitis C. They are:

  1. Hepatitis C antibody test: Can determine whether a person has ever had hepatitis C
  2. Hepatitis C PCR (RNA) test: Can determine whether a person currently has hepatitis C, as well as their viral load.

(Better Health Channel 2021; Hepatitis Australia 2020c)

Hepatitis C Treatment

As of 1 March 2016, new medications have been introduced to treat chronic hepatitis C in Australia. These medications are called direct acting antivirals (DAAs). They:

  • Have a cure rate of over 95%
  • Have no or few side effects
  • Usually only need to be taken for 8 weeks (in most people), or for 24 weeks in certain instances
  • Are taken orally
  • Are subsidised by the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

(Health NSW 2019; Better Health Channel 2021)

Hepatitis C Prevention

safe disposal of syringe method of hepatitis C prevention
Safely disposing of found or used needles and syringes is a method of hepatitis C prevention.
  • Use sterile equipment
  • Avoid sharing any personal equipment that could draw blood (e.g. toothbrushes, razors, nail files or nail scissors)
  • Ensure that piercing instruments are clean (e.g. body piercing, tattooing, acupuncture or electrolysis instruments)
  • Practice safe-sex (using condoms, dental dams), as unprotected sex involving blood or damaged skin poses the highest risk
  • As a healthcare worker, follow infection control guidelines strictly, particularly when blood or body fluids are being handled
  • Safely dispose of found or used needles and syringes
  • Cover sores or open wounds with appropriate bandaids/bandages
  • Wear single-use gloves.

(Better Health Channel 2021; SA Health 2022; WHO 2022)


While there is no current vaccine for hepatitis C, new hepatitis C treatments are simple, safe and highly-effective with a cure rate of more than 95%. Treatment also has the added benefit of preventing transmission to others (Better Health Channel 2021).


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Globally, how many people are estimated to have hepatitis C?


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