July 28th is World Hepatitis Day, a day to raise global awareness about viral hepatitis and inspire change.
Viral hepatitis is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. It’s responsible for 1.34 million deaths around the world each year, every 30 seconds stealing the life of a man, woman, or child. These deaths are unnecessary, as there are vaccines and antiviral medications to help prevent, treat, and cure the different types of hepatitis: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D, and hepatitis E. To help spread the word about prevention and treatment, the World Hepatitis Alliance has declared ELIMINATE HEPATITIS the theme of World Hepatitis Day 2017.
Hepatitis A and Hepatitis E
Both hepatitis A and hepatitis E are spread through food and drinking water contaminated by infected feces. They can also be contracted from raw shellfish that has been exposed to sewage water. If you’ve been exposed to hepatitis A, getting vaccinated within a few weeks can offer protective short-term immunity. There is a vaccine for hepatitis E, but it isn’t widely available. Both hepatitis A and E are self-limiting, meaning they can resolve on their own, typically within 6 months. There is no specific treatment for either beyond proper rest and nutrition. To reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis A or E, do not drink from potentially unsafe water, and practice good hygiene and sanitation.
What Is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are the two most talked about types of hepatitis…and also the most troublesome when left undiagnosed and untreated. Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids, like vaginal fluid, semen, or saliva. The mother can also pass it onto her child during childbirth.
There is a vaccine for hepatitis B. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend infants and children under 18 years of age get vaccinated. Click here for a list of high-risk people who may want to consider hepatitis B vaccination.
If you aren’t vaccinated you can reduce your risk of infection by using condoms, and avoiding sharing needles and personal care items such as toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers. Only get tattoos and piercings from reputable, licensed facilities.
If you’ve been exposed to hepatitis B, getting injected with the antibody immune globulin within 12 hours may help protect against infection. Many doctors recommend getting vaccinated at the same time.
Some cases of hepatitis B are short-lived and will clear up on their own with rest, a good diet, and fluids. But hepatitis B is often chronic, and treatment is absolutely necessary in order to help protect against the development of liver disease and to keep the virus from spreading to other people.
There are several different antiviral medications for hepatitis B treatment, such as laxmivudine (Epivir), adefovir (Hespera), entecavir ((Baraclude), and telbivudine (Tyzeka), that can help fight liver damage. Interferon alfa-2b (Intron A) is a synthetic version of a substance produced by the body that helps to fight the infection. It’s often used to treat younger adults who don’t want to undergo long-term treatment or who are looking to get pregnant within a few years. If hepatitis B is not dealt with in a timely manner, then liver damage may be so severe it necessitates a liver transplant.
Hepatitis D is also transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, but is only contracted if a person is already infected with hepatitis B. While interferon has been shown to help, there is currently no antiviral therapy for hepatitis D available.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C (HCV) is transmitted through the blood, and in rare instances through certain sexual practices and childbirth. Reduction methods are the same—avoid sharing needles and personal care products—but there is a cure for hepatitis C!
Hepatitis C responds to antiviral medications, and the infection can be effectively eliminated within 12 weeks of treatment, which often consists of a combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin. The mix of medications and the effectiveness depends on a person’s genotype.
Those most at risk for hepatitis C include healthcare workers exposed to infected blood, individuals who inject or inhale illegal drugs, HIV patients, or people who get tattoos or piercings from establishments that use unsterile equipment. According to the Mayo Clinic, others at high risk include:
- Babies born to mothers with hepatitis C
- Anyone who has abnormal liver function test results with no identified cause
- People with hemophilia who were treated with clotting factors before 1987
- People who have ever undergone long-term hemodialysis treatments
- People who received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992
- Sexual partners of anyone diagnosed with hepatitis C infection
- Anyone born from 1945 to 1965
- Anyone who has been in prison
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Viral hepatitis is so dangerous, because it’s so silent. Approximately 90% of hepatitis B carriers and 80% of hepatitis C carriers are unaware they have the virus. Without treatment, viral hepatitis can lead to severe liver damage, including scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer, and liver failure.
Most of the time, symptoms don’t appear until hepatitis C has become chronic. Symptoms can include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Unexplainable fatigue
- Lack of appetite
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark-colored urine
- Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in the legs
- Weight loss
- Symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy (confusion, drowsiness, slurred speech)
- Spider-like blood vessels
In some cases, symptoms such as nausea, jaundice, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches can arise within 2 to 3 months of exposure to hepatitis C. You can screen for viral hepatitis with a blood test.
Get Involved to Eliminate Hepatitis
There are many chronic conditions and diseases for which we don’t have a cure, but viral hepatitis is not one of them. There are a host of antiviral treatments for hepatitis B and a cure for hepatitis C. What’s needed now is to help spread awareness, which is sorely lacking.
Getting involved on World Hepatitis Day 2017 is easy. Check out this list of ideas put together by the World Hepatitis Alliance. At the center of this year’s ELIMIATE HEP initiative is the #ShowYourFace campaign. Take a photo of your face, add an empowering I AM message, and use the #ShowYourFace hashtag to blast your support for viral hepatitis elimination across your social media channels.
You can also help spread awareness by sharing this poignant video from the NOhep movement: There’s NOEXCUSE: Viral Hepatatis Can Be Eliminated.
Want more information on viral hepatitis and its role in shaping current healthcare practices and efforts? A Never Event: Exposing the Largest Outbreak of Hepatitis C in American Healthcare History is a fascinating book on the largest outbreak of viral hepatitis in healthcare, written by a survivor of and attorney for many of the 857 cancer patients infected by the deadly blood-borne hepatitis C virus.