Hepatitis C is a virus carried in the blood that causes liver inflammation and can lead to long-term liver damage.
The virus is spread when the blood of an infected person gets into the bloodstream of another person.
The main way hepatitis C is spread in the UK is through drug use, by the sharing of needles. Body piercing or tattooing using unsterilised needles can also spread the virus.
Rarely, it is spread through sexual contact or from mother to baby before or during birth.
Certain people are at a higher risk of acquiring hepatitis C, including:
About one in five infected people will clear the virus from their bodies naturally within the first six months of infection. For the remainder, hepatitis C becomes a chronic infection.
For these people, the outcome of infection is extremely variable. Many people never develop any signs or symptoms of liver disease and may not even know they have been infected. However, about 20 per cent will develop cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver within 10-30 years, which can lead to liver failure.
Chronic hepatitis C is also associated with an increased risk of liver cancer. More information about hepatitis C is available on the NHS Direct Wales website.
New medications have revolutionised the treatment of hepatitis C so that it is now curable in around 9 out of 10 people if treated early. The new tablet treatments are more effective and have far fewer side-effects. Treatment takes eight to 12 weeks.
Even if treatment does not clear the virus, it can still slow down inflammation and liver damage.
In March 2019, Public Health Wales launched a drive to trace thousands of people in Wales living with hepatitis C to offer them new treatments that cure nearly all cases of the infection.
The exercise is ongoing and Public Health Wales continues to work with GPs and local health boards to contact people in Wales who have previously been diagnosed with hepatitis C, but haven’t been successfully treated, to invite them to be retested and receive new treatments if they are still infected.
The new treatments, which became more widely available in 2015, are very effective and can cure the virus in more than 90 per cent of cases.
If you think you have been exposed to hepatitis C or are in a high-risk group, you can contact your GP directly to arrange testing.
More information: Public Health Wales launches drive to trace Hepatitis C patients
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
People who inject drugs should not share needles or other injecting equipment, and people who get a body piercing or tattoo should make sure sterile disposable needles are used.
People living with hepatitis C should start treatment to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
Since 1991, all blood donated in the UK is screened for the hepatitis C virus.
Wales has signed up to the WHO strategy to eliminate hepatitis C as a significant public health threat by 2030. The WHO has set a target to reduce new cases by 90 per cent and hepatitis-related deaths by 65 per cent by 2030.
Following the introduction of new treatments, the All Wales Hepatitis C Treatment Roll-Out Programme began in 2014. More than 1,000 patients with hepatitis C have now been treated through the programme. Wales does not to restrict access to effective new hepatitis C treatment.
An estimated 5,000 people have been diagnosed with hepatitis C but have not received treatment or cleared the virus. Public Health Wales and health boards are working together to contact them to offer retesting and the new treatments.
Prisons have a significant role to play in achieving the WHO target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030.
Welsh prisons have been routinely testing for blood-borne viruses (BBVs), including hepatitis C, since 2010.
Since 2016, Wales has moved to opt-out testing where all men in prison are offered BBV testing within the first few days of imprisonment. Specialist services from local health boards run clinics in every prison, providing treatment for hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV.
In 2017, more than a third of prison admissions were tested, a significant increase since the move to opt-out testing. Around 10 per cent of men tested in prisons were found positive for hepatitis C antibodies.
In 2018, there were 530 laboratory reports of Hepatitis C in Wales.
The number of laboratory-confirmed cases of hepatitis C in Wales can be viewed from our interactive data dashboard.
The Hepatitis C Trust is the national patient-led UK charity for people affected by hepatitis C.
It runs a range of services both for people affected by hepatitis C and those working with them.
As well as campaigning for better awareness of the virus, improved services and access to new treatments, it also provides a national helpline (020 7089 6221 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org) staffed by people who have had hepatitis C themselves.
It also provides a monthly e-newsletter to keep people up to date with the latest news, research and events.