When hepatitis viruses attack the liver, they invade its cells, known as hepatocytes, where they multiply. The immune system, which provides the body's defense response, destroys the infected cells, causing inflammation of the liver. Contamination by this virus may result in characteristic symptoms of acute inflammation of the liver, and these can last several weeks. The symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, pale stools, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. It is not possible to distinguish the various forms of hepatitis solely based on the symptoms of the acute phase of the disease.
In contrast to hepatitis A and hepatitis E, the hepatitis B and C viruses may lead to chronic infection, which means that the individual does not manage to eliminate the virus and, many years later, may develop serious complications of chronic hepatitis: cirrhosis and chances to develop liver cancer.
The hepatitis A and B viruses were identified in the 1960s and 1970s, while hepatitis C and E – formerly known as "non-A and non-B hepatitis" – were identified more recently, in 1989-90.
Hepatitis B is one of the most prevalent human diseases. It is estimated that 2 billion people have been infected by the virus, including over 257 million people living with chronic HBV infection, able to transmit the virus over many years. Chronic carriers have a high risk of dying from cirrhosis or liver cancer. These diseases cause about 887,000 deaths annually.
Acute hepatitis B is often asymptomatic, or causes flu-like symptoms (loss of appetite and digestive problems, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fever). Depending on the age at HBV infection, infected people can present characteristic symptoms of acute inflammation of the liver (jaundice, dark urine, pale stools). The incubation period from exposure to onset of jaundice varies between 45 and 180 days, with an average of 60 to 90 days.
Not all people infected with HBV develop chronic infection. The risk is inversely correlated with the age at infection: 80-90% of infants infected at birth, 20-30% of those infected during childhood, and <5% of thosee infected during adulthood. Most people with chronic HBV do not present obvious symptoms, despite showing signs of liver inflammation and being able to contaminate their immediate circle.
In many ressource-limited countries (sub-Saharan Africa, a large part of Asia and in the Pacific region), chronic HBV infection accounts for more than 8% of the adult population. In these regions, liver cancer caused by hepatitis B is among the three highest causes of cancer-induced death in humans. The Amazon region and Southeastern and Central Europe are also heavily affected. In the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, chronic carriers account for about 3% of the population. Infection is less common in Western Europe and North America, where chronic carriers account for less than 1-2% of the population. In France, it is estimated that about 300,000 people are chronic carriers of the hepatitis B virus (HBV), of whom 9% are also infected with HIV.
The hepatitis B virus is transmitted via all biological fluids and secretions, usually via blood and sexual contact. Hepatitis B is deemed to be an extremely contagious infectious disease, and is between 50 and 100 times more infectious than the AIDS virus. The main transmission routes are from mother to child during labour, close contact with an infected person, sexual contact, high-risk injections (intravenous drug users) and transfusions. . Statistically, the most common transmission modes throughout the world are from mother to child and between children within the same family.
In many resource-limited countries, almost all children are infected by the virus. Hepatitis B cannot be transmitted by contaminated food or water, nor by casual contact in the workplace.
There is no specific treatment for acute hepatitis that improves the chances of recovery. The efficacy of so-called hepatoprotective products – in other words products to protect the liver – has not been proven. An infected person must wait until his or her own defense system naturally overcomes the virus. As long as recovery is not complete, the natural bodily fluids and secretions (blood, semen, vaginal secretions, saliva, etc.) remain contagious. Once recovery from hepatitis is complete, the liver returns to normal and there is lifelong protection against this disease unless immunosuppressive drugs are used.
In people with high risk of chronic liver diseases, chronic HBV infection is treated with antiviral drugs such as Tenofovir or Entecavir. The cost of these treatments has recently dropped particularly in resource-limited countries thanks to the availability of generic drugs. However, because of the limited access to screening for HBV and clinical assessment for staging liver disease, many people in resource-limited countries live with chronic HBV infection without knowing their infection and do not benefit from antiviral therapy. In addition, these drugs can supress the viral replication, but cannot cure the infection. Consequently, most people who initiated anti-HBV treatment need to continue for life. Development of drugs that can cure the infection is highly warranted. A liver transplant may be carried out in the case of cirrhosis in resource-rich countries. Surgery and chemotherapy can improve the prognosis for those developed liver cancer in resource-rich countries. In low-income countries the access to these treatments are very limited, and even palliative care is not adequately provided.
Vaccination against hepatitis B remains the primary reliable way to prevent the infection at a large-scale. Highly effective hepatitis B vaccines have been available since 1981, including one developed by the Institut Pasteur (GenHevac B). Three injections with this vaccine convey protection against the hepatitis B virus in 98% of vaccinated individuals. Protection lasts at least ten years – and for life – in 90% of vaccinated individuals. This vaccine also prevents the serious complications of acute fulminant hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver cancers.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) was identified in 1989 as the major cause of post-transfusion hepatitis. It was formerly known as "non-A, non-B hepatitis".
HCV is classified as a separate genus (hepacivirus) within the large Flaviviridae family. This family includes many other major viruses seen in the medical or veterinary fields, such as those responsible for yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus (flavivirus genus) or bovine virus diarrhea (pestivirus genus). Humans and chimpanzees are apparently the only species susceptible to infection by the hepatitis C virus.
Replication of the viral genome gives rise to numerous errors, resulting in the circulation of a great many viral molecular species in the human population. The viral variants identified to date are grouped into 7 genotypes, which have variable susceptibility to treatments.
Acute hepatitis C develops after an incubation period averaging between six and ten weeks. It is largely asymptomatic. Symptoms that do occur are similar to those of other forms of viral hepatitis (fatigue, nausea, pains followed by dark urine and jaundice). Measurement of concentrations of transaminases in the blood shows that the liver is relatively unaffected at this stage. Occasionally, HCV infection may trigger acute liver failure, known as fulminant hepatitis.
Full recovery is confirmed by tests showing absence of the virus in the blood for more than six months following acute infection, as well as the presence of HCV antibodies. It is acknowledged that only 15 to 45% of cases of acute hepatitis C end in recovery, irrespective of whether or not they are symptomatic, while 55 to 85% of infected patients go on to develop chronic infection. This can lead to progressive deterioration of the liver, and subsequently to cirrhosis. In Europe and North America, the risk of this development is estimated at 15-30% within twenty years after infection.
Three main factors influence the risk of cirrhosis: the duration of the chronic viral infection, age when first infected and level of alcohol consumption, with high intake an exacerbating factor. From the cirrhosis stage, there is a high risk of development of hepatocellular carcinoma, the rate being between 1 and 4% per year. Cirrhosis resulting from hepatitis C is a major indication for liver transplant.
Current epidemiological data places the figure for chronic carriers of the hepatitis C virus at 71 million people worldwide, with an average seroprevalence of around 1.0%. This prevalence varies depending on the country: it is very low in Northern Europe, but higher in Southeast Asia and Africa, with over 20% in Egypt. The World Health Organization estimates the annual number of deaths from hepatitis C infections at nearly 399,000.
In France, the number of people living with chronic HCV infection is estimated at about 134,000. There are 4,000 new cases annually. It is estimated that 24% of patients infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are also infected with HCV.
The silent advance of the disease and high incidence of chronic infection explain why there is such a large reservoir of infected individuals.
The hepatitis C virus is mainly transmitted through blood (transfusion, intravenous drug use, organ transplant).
Transmission via blood transfusion is now under control in developed countries, but was the most common transmission mode prior to the introduction of screening systems for donated blood in 1991. It is estimated that high-risk injections (particularly among drug users) using non-sterile equipment and the transfusion of contaminated blood products cause two million new cases of hepatitis C virus infection each year worldwide.
The risk of materno-fetal transmission for HCV is around 5% if the virus is detectable in the mother's blood at the time of birth. Although sexual transmission remains controversial, it has never been excluded. HCV/HIV co-infection is an increasing problem in countries with HIV epidemics and among intravenous drug users. Approximately 10% of hepatitis C cases are classified as "sporadic", since there are no discernible associated risk factors.
Previously, the treatment relied on pegylated interferon-alpha and ribavirin, that had limited efficacy and substantial risk of serious adverse effects.
New therapeutic approaches that specifically target the virus have been developed over the last decade as a result of improved understanding of the structure and function of viral proteins. Thanks to the advent of these direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) that are effective against all different HCV genotypes, the antiviral therapy has been indicated to all persons with chronic HCV infection over the age of 12 years. The treatment duration is only 12-24 weeks, and more than 95% of treated people can cure chronic HCV infection. Prices of DAAs have dropped remarkably in many low- and middle-income countries, however, the access to the treatment remains still inadequate in many of these countries.
There is currently no vaccine against hepatitis C. The most effective means of fighting the disease is based on controlling the risk of nosocomial HCV transmission (blood transfusions, high-risk injections, etc.), a risk reduction policy for intravenous drug users, and increasing access to DAAs in high-risk population. Screening of high-risk groups, in particular people who received blood products before 1992, is also an important factor in the fight against this infection.