Nearly 80 percent of chronic hepatitis C sufferers who have the disease for several decades will develop cirrhosis or end-stage liver disease later in life, according to a study published today in the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
Researchers found that it is highly likely that people who are infected with hepatitis C (HCV) for more than 60 years will develop cirrhosis--the highest rate of hepatitis C-associated cirrhosis reported to date.
Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver and is spread primarily by contact with blood and blood products in transfusions and among drug users who share needles. Other common routes of transmission are infants born to HCV-infected mothers, tattoos and body piercings and risky sexual behavior. Of those who are infected, more than 80 percent will be chronic carriers of the disease. HCV can cause long-term scarring of the liver and usually presents with mild and non-specific symptoms, if any. They include fatigue, nausea, poor appetite and muscle and joint pain. It is estimated that more than 4 million Americans are now infected with HCV (more than 170 million people worldwide) and nearly 10,000 Americans die from the disease each year.
"Hepatitis C begins generally as a silent acute infection, with a fraction of the patients developing cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease or liver cancer," according to an editorial appearing in this month's journal. "Although this is a generally accepted scenario in persons infected with HCV, there remains uncertainty about the true frequency of evolution of liver disease and its rate of progression."
According to results of the study from researchers at the Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, the prevalence of cirrhosis in patients with chronic HCV increases with the duration of the disease. Nearly 80 percent of Asian patients who were infected at birth and lived with the disease for 60 years or more developed cirrhosis--a finding that researchers say can be applied to the general population because of the similarity in the way the disease progresses in all ethnic groups.
"This study suggests that prolonged infection with hepatitis C leads to cirrhosis in the majority of those who are infected," said Graham R. Foster, PhD, FRCP, study author and professor of hepatology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London. "While previous studies have found differences in disease progression in various ethnic groups, our findings confirm that fibrosis progression is the same across these groups and leads to development of cirrhosis and liver disease at the same rate in everyone."
Researchers conducted retrospective analyses of 382 patients diagnosed with hepatitis C at three hospitals in northeast London between 1992 and 2003. Study participants were divided into two groups: Asian patients presumably infected in childhood and Caucasian patients. While the prevalence of cirrhosis in Caucasian patients was similar to the findings of previous studies, the statistics in Asians were markedly higher than previously found. The higher prevalence was partially attributed to the longer duration of HCV in the Asian patient population, those patients having suffered with the disease nearly 30 years more than the Caucasian subjects.