Hepatitis C generally does not kill quickly

Singapore General Hospital in Outram Road.
Singapore General Hospital in Outram Road. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

A liver specialist is surprised that at least four people are suspected to have died within months of being infected with hepatitis C.

This is not a virus that kills quickly, Dr Desmond Wai told The Straits Times about the deaths linked to the virus at the Singapore General Hospital.

In his experience, even those with a weakened immune system - such as kidney failure patients - would take at least five to 10 years to develop severe liver damage.

The only exception, he said, is a rare and aggressive strain of the virus known as fibrosing cholestatic hepatitis C.

If someone who has a severely weakened immune system is infected with this particular strain, he could become critically ill in a matter of weeks.

"But this is very rare," he stressed. "In more than 20 years of practice, I've seen only two cases."

He added: "For someone healthy like you or me, hepatitis C... would take approximately 20 years to cause severe liver damage."

Even for someone who is ill and whose immune system has been compromised, said Dr Wai, the serious problems take as long as five to 10 years to emerge.

Such problems include liver cirrhosis - or scarring of the liver - liver cancer or liver failure.

Hepatitis C affects an estimated 0.3 per cent of the Singapore population. It is usually transmitted through infected blood and other body fluids.

The virus takes between two weeks and six months to incubate before people begin showing symptoms, such as fatigue, fever and weight loss.

The majority of people do not show symptoms and may not even know that they are infected.

Around 20 per cent of people infected with the virus will be able to get rid of it on their own without the need for medical intervention, said Dr Wai. Of the remaining group, nine in 10 people can be cured using antiviral medication.

He highlighted the example of one of his patients who contracted acute hepatitis C after a kidney transplant in China.

"I've seen her for more than a year and she's very stable, there's minimum damage to her liver," he said.

On average, Dr Wai sees one hepatitis C case every two months.

"Frankly speaking, this disease does not kill," he said. "We need to wait for more information from the Ministry of Health before we know what is going on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Hepatitis C generally does not kill quickly'. Print Edition | Subscribe