HCV is a blood-borne virus transmitted by percutaneous exposure to infected blood or blood-derived body fluids. The main routes of transmission are blood transfusions, medical procedures and injection drug use. In industrialized countries, HCV transmission through blood transfusions has been virtually eliminated and iatrogenic transmission occurs only sporadically during local breaches of infection control procedures. As most new cases originate from injection drug use, harm-reduction programmes (including opiate substitution, needle exchange and health education) can greatly reduce HCV transmission. Currently, the main approach to reduce the HCV disease burden is by increasing awareness of both the public and health-care providers to hepatitis C, enhancing screening opportunities and treatment of the infected population. In resource-limited countries, the priority is reducing transmission through blood transfusions and invasive medical procedures. This approach requires training of health-care providers and also structural changes and financial investments in countries where antibody screening, disposable materials and effective sterilization procedures are not routinely available. In these countries, reducing the HCV burden has been hampered by limited access to treatment, largely owing to the cost of drugs. Access to treatment is moving up on the agenda of international and non-governmental organizations in conjunction with the future availability of highly efficacious oral drug regimens.