Most people get vaccinated against so many diseases as a child that it can be easy to assume you’ve received vaccines for practically everything. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and some infections still pose a threat.
Take hepatitis C, for instance, an infection that can attack your liver and inflammation and even liver damage in some cases. The hepatitis C virus can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications, but it doesn't have a vaccine, which begs the question: Why—and will there ever be one?
Health spoke with infectious disease specialists to find out more about hepatitis C transmission, the likeliness of a future vaccine, and what you can do to protect yourself in the meantime.
What is hepatitis C, again?
Hepatitis is, essentially, inflammation of the liver, and when your liver is inflamed or damaged, it won’t function the way it should, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—which means that it may not help your body digest food, store energy, and remove poisons the way it's meant to.
There are three major forms of hepatitis that are more common in the US: hepatitis A, B, and C—each of which is spread through a different virus. It can also be caused by drug or alcohol use, per the US National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Hepatitis C in particular can be divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute hepatitis C happens within the first six months after you’re exposed to the hepatitis C virus, the CDC says, and some people's bodies are able to fight off the infection—symptoms of which can include dark yellow urine, fatigue, fever, and jaundice.
But even the acute version of hepatitis C can lead to a chronic infection for up to 85 percent of people who are infected, per CDC data. Chronic hepatitis C can be a lifelong illness that can cause severe health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It's estimated that 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the US alone have chronic hepatitis C—many of whom don't know they have the virus, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), since the chronic version doesn't typically cause symptoms until complications occur.
Generally speaking, people become infected with hepatitis C through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person—that can include blood transfusions, organ transplants, and IV drug use, says Dr. Adalja. Less commonly, the CDC says you can get hepatitis C through sharing personal care items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, like razors or toothbrushes; having sexual contact with someone infected with hepatitis C; being born to a mother with hepatitis C; or getting a tattoo or piercing with an infected needle.
So, why isn’t there a vaccine for hepatitis C?
There are vaccines available for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, but not for hepatitis C—mainly because all viruses are so different. "Even though they’re all called hepatitis, they’re different viruses and each has its own challenges to making a vaccine," says Dr. Adalja.
Hepatitis C in particular has been tricky to create an effective vaccine against. "It’s more of a scientific challenge because the hepatitis C virus has the capacity to mutate and change," says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Hepatitis C is also difficult to find a vaccine for because people can be re-infected with the virus after they’ve had it in the past, Dr. Adalja says. Still, Dr. Schaffner says, "a hepatitis C vaccine is highly desired." That's why a hepatitis C vaccine is "under way," per the CDC—but it could be a while before one is ready for use. "We’re probably talking eight to 10 years,” says Dr. Schaffner says.
Until then, the NLM says you can protect yourself by wearing gloves if you ever have to come into contact with another person's blood, making sure tattoo or piercing artists use sterilized tools, not sharing personal items like toothbrushes or razors, and never sharing drug needles or other drug materials.
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