THURSDAY, Jan. 31 (HealthDay News) -- Each injection drug user with hepatitis C is likely to infect about 20 other people, and half of those transmissions occur in the first two years after the initial infection, new research shows.
The findings indicate that early diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C in injection drug users -- called "super-spreaders" -- could prevent many cases of hepatitis C, the researchers said.
The hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with infected blood, having sex with an infected person and from mother to baby during childbirth. Hepatitis C can lead to scarring of the liver or liver cancer. Some patients require a liver transplant. There is no vaccine for the disease.
The researchers combined epidemiological and molecular data to determine how hepatitis C spreads in a population.
"For the first time we show that super-spreading in hepatitis C is led by intravenous drug users early in their infection," study author Gkikas Magiorkinis, of the zoology department at the University of Oxford in England, said in a university news release.
"Using this information, we can hopefully soon make a solid argument to support the scaling-up of early diagnosis and antiviral treatment in drug users," Magiorkinis said. "Helping these people and stopping the spread of hepatitis C is our ultimate target."
The study was published Jan. 31 in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.
Up to 180 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, but many don't know it and go undiagnosed for more than 10 years.
"Working out how many people are likely to be infected by each 'super-spreader' of hepatitis C, as well as how soon they will be infected, has been a puzzle for over 20 years," Magiorkinis said.
"Our research has resolved this issue and paves the way for a modeling study to show what kind of public health interventions could really make a difference," he added. He said their approach should also be useful to those studying HIV.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more about hepatitis C.