The Nobel Prize Is a Reminder of Hepatitis C’s Dark History

Charting the virus’ map of destruction


Cirrhosis of the liver with hepatic steatosis and chronic hepatitis. Image: OGphoto/Getty Images

Yesterday, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. The discovery led to a curative treatment for the widespread, fatal virus, which infects somewhere between 71 million and 170 million people worldwide. This chronic disease is often silent for many years, but eventually it may cause cirrhosis, skin problems, blood disorders, and weight loss. In its most severe stages, hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure. While a hepatitis C diagnosis today is not necessarily a death sentence, the virus has left a centuries-long trail of destruction. Tracing the history of this virus reveals some of the most disconcerting of human behaviors, and a lesson in ways in which poverty and oppression shape global health.

Ancient Egypt is a case in point, a country where hepatitis C rose to epidemic proportions due to poverty and its accompanying perilous living conditions and poor sanitation. That story begins on the banks of the Nile River, which, starting at least 5,000 years ago, was home to a centuries-long infestation of snails that was nearly impossible to eradicate.

The snails played host to a parasitic worm called Schistosoma, which caused an illness known as Bilharzia (after Theodore Bilharz, the German doctor who discovered it in 1851), snail fever, or simply schistosomiasis. The parasite found an easy home among the Nomadic people who settled in the fertile Nile valley 5,000 years ago. The Nile River was the center of their lives. When they walked barefoot, the worms found their feet. When they bathed, the worms landed on their skin.

Inside a human host, the worm burrows in, loses its tail, enters the circulatory system and finds its way to the liver or bladder, where it matures into adulthood. Males and females mate and when their human host urinates or defecates — which ancient Egyptians often did right in the Nile — the flatworm eggs are laid and the cycle begins anew.

The impoverished lifestyle along the Nile delta allowed snail fever to flourish. Two mummies from the Twentieth Dynasty of ancient Egypt (1250–1000 BC) were diagnosed with schistosomiasis by an…



Jessica Wapner, journalist, author and podcaster

Jessica Wapner writes for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Scientific American & elsewhere. She co-hosted the podcast One Click and has written two books.