Most people know about hepatitis B; babies get vaccinated for it at birth. But fewer people know about hepatitis C. C is actually more common than B, but most chronically infected people don’t know they have it. You might think ignorance is bliss, but patients who have no symptoms today may have liver cancer or a liver transplant in their future. Until recently, treatment for this stealth disease was disappointing, but according to three recent, large controlled studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the virus has been tamed. A short course of a new antiviral drug with few side effects was 99% effective in removing the virus from the blood.
In the beginning, there was jaundice. Patients turned yellow, developed flu-like symptoms, and sometimes died. Eventually doctors figured out that jaundice was a sign of liver disease and the condition was named hepatitis; and by the time I graduated from medical school in 1970, scientists had identified two viruses that caused infectious hepatitis: hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A infection was transmitted by the fecal-oral route, usually by contamination of food; hepatitis B was transmitted by needles and blood products. Prevention was limited to good hygienic practices; treatment of acute hepatitis was limited to bed rest, supportive care, and IV fluids. Contacts could be given gamma globulin. In fulminant cases and chronic hepatitis, steroids were used. No treatment was very effective. Death and cirrhosis often ensued.