Hepatitis is characterized by an inflammation of the liver that is, for the most part, caused by hepatitis viruses. The five main hepatitis viruses are A, B, C, D and E — with A, B, and C being the most prevalent. According to the World Health Organization, over 400 million people have hepatitis B or C. However, since many people are symptom-free, only 1 in 20 know that they have it. Early detection is key, most notably because types B and C are the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and cancer if not treated.
The hepatitis A virus (HAV) is caused by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or through direct contact with someone who’s infected. There is a vaccination to help prevent HAV, but there isn’t any specific treatment once someone is diagnosed. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can take several weeks or even months to recover from, but most everyone does recover, and develops a lifelong immunity to it. For the most part, developed countries with good sanitary and hygiene conditions have low HAV infection rates, but infection can occur anywhere.
Hepatitis B (HBV) is also a viral infection of the liver that is transmitted through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids. It’s potentially life-threatening, as it can cause chronic infection and increase risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer. Although there is a safe and effective vaccine available, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 257 million people have HBV. While it can usually be treated, and generally suppressed, it cannot be cured.
This virus is very hardy, and can survive outside of the body for at least seven days and can cause both acute or chronic disease. During acute infection, most people don’t experience symptoms, and there is no specific treatment for it — care is focused on comfort and maintaining healthy nutrition and fluid intake.
Chronic HBV is generally dependent on the age of the person who contracts it. Approximately 80-90% of infants infected during their first year of life, and 30-50% of children infected before age six are likely to develop chronic infection. People with chronic HBV can be given oral treatments that are easy to take, rarely lead to drug resistance, and have few side effects.
Hepatitis B prevention begins with a series of vaccines, typically given as three or four injections over several months. The vaccine is recommended for all newborns and children not vaccinated at birth, as well as health care workers, sexually active homosexual men, anyone with multiple sexual partners. Those who have chronic liver or kidney disease, or are planning to travel to areas of the world with high hepatitis B infection rates should also be vaccinated.
El Camino Hospital offers vaccines and screenings for Hepatitis B. Learn more.
The hepatitis C virus can be both acute and chronic, and can cause mild, short-term illness or serious, lifelong condition. This virus is blood borne, and is frequently transmitted through injection drug use, unsafe health care practices, or infected blood transfusions. HCV can also be sexually transmitted or transmitted from mother to baby, but this is less common.
The acute infection generally causes no symptoms, and many don’t know they have it. However, if a person knows they have been exposed, such as through an accidental needle stick, treatment is generally administered to help prevent long-term infection. The remaining 55%+ will develop the chronic infection. There is no vaccine available for HCV, and WHO estimates 71 million people have chronic infection. Luckily, antivirals can cure more than 95% of hepatitis C infections if it is diagnosed early – which is why frequent screening for this often asymptomatic disease is so important for populations at risk.
Talk to your doctor about ways to protect yourself from Hepatitis, and determine which vaccinations you should have.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.