It is impossible to really know the origins of hepatitis C
since there are no stored blood samples to test for the
virus that are older than 50 years. However, given the
nature of the evolution of all viruses, hepatitis C has
probably been around for hundreds of thousands of
years or more before evolving into the current strains.
Some experts speculate that since HGV/GBV-C, a close
relative of HCV, originated in Old and New World primates,
the beginnings of HCV might be traced back to
35 million years ago. However, this is just speculation
and it is impossible to corroborate these theories at the
present time. On firmer ground is the prediction that
the different subtypes of HCV originated approximately
200 years ago and that the six main genotypes of HCV
most likely had a common ancestor approximately 400
years ago. However, it has also been pointed out that
it is difficult to limit the origin of HCV to such a short
period of human history because the virus is found in
remote areas all over the world. As well, the virus is
mainly spread by direct blood-to-blood contact, making
it difficult to spread and evolve rapidly – especially
considering that the main transmission routes (blood
product use and needle use) have only been in existence
for a short period of time.
Scientists developed blood tests to identify hepatitis B
(1963) and hepatitis A (1973), but many of the blood
samples taken for post-transfusion illness tested negative
for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Given that the mode of transmission (blood transfusion)
was the same, scientists classified the unidentified
cases as non-A, non-B hepatitis. It is now believed that
approximately 90-95% of cases previously classified as
non-A, non-B (NA/NB) were actually hepatitis C.
In the 1980’s, investigators from the Centers for Disease
Control (headed up by Daniel W. Bradley) and Chiron
(Michael Houghton) identified the virus in 1989. In
1990, blood banks began screening blood donors for
hepatitis C, but it wasn’t until 1992 that a blood test
was perfected that effectively eliminated HCV from the
blood transfusion supply. Now, there is less than one
per two million transfused units of blood estimated to
be tainted with hepatitis C. Prior to the screening of
the blood supply for hepatitis C, approximately 300,000
Americans contracted hepatitis C through blood transfusions
or blood products.
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