color block shapes of a doctor administering a vaccine in an arm

Hepatitis A, B... and C Vaccine?

The development of the hepatitis A and B vaccines in the 1980s led to a shift to control hepatitis viruses through preventative strategies. Therefore, the development of vaccines has been a focal point in preventative public health measures. This raises a question: Why isn't there a hepatitis C vaccine yet?

Most people agree that there is a need for the vaccine. A vaccine would be life-changing for those at risk for the hepatitis C virus (HCV), or those living with the condition and worry about infecting their loved ones. The attempt to develop a vaccine has been ongoing for the past 25 years, proving it to be one of the most challenging endeavors in vaccine development history.

The challenges in vaccine development

Hepatitis C vaccine development challenges overlap with those for HIV vaccine attempts. HCV, like HIV, is more variable than the other hepatitis viruses. Think of it like a rapidly changing Rubik's cube. Not only does the virus have a tendency to mutate, but there are 6 genotypes of the virus, and multiple subtypes. An effective vaccine would need to protect against all genotypes and subtypes. Despite this,  a future vaccine is possible because a proportion of people are able to clear the virus on their own. This shows that the immune system is involved in the prevention of hepatitis C, which is the target for vaccines.

Somewhat promising trials

There are currently 6 active trials in various stages, with one going to clinical trials starting 2021. These trial vaccines have been administered to hundreds of healthy volunteers and are now being tested for effectiveness. There are also some vaccines being trialled to treat people with chronic HCV infection. There are many lengthy stages to vaccine development; It takes approximately 10 years for a vaccine to be approved and marketed!

What can we do while there is no hep C vaccine?

These vaccines help protect your liver and reduce risk of complications from other infections:

  • Hepatitis A and B: The CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends vaccination of those with chronic hepatitis C against hepatitis A and B. This is because if someone with hepatitis C became co-infected with hepatitis A or B, it would increase the risk of serious complications. The hepatitis A vaccine requires a total of 2 doses, and the hepatitis B vaccine requires a total of 3 doses. It's important to make sure that you've completed the full course for each vaccine!
  • Influenza: To reduce hospitalization related to influenza, most people with chronic liver disease should receive the flu shot annually.
  • Pneumococcal: The majority of people with chronic liver disease should receive the pneumonia vaccine. There are 2 different pneumonia vaccines. The right one(s) for you will depend on your age and your other medical conditions.
  • Tetanus: Everyone should receive a tetanus booster every 10 years.

Speak to a public health nurse or your physician about these vaccines. To stay up-to-date with all your vaccines, it is a good idea to keep an immunization logbook.

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