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Raising Awareness of Viral Hepatitis on World Hepatitis Day

Viral hepatitis is a major health problem and one of the leading causes of death globally.  Approximately 1.34 million people die each year all around the world, and million others are infected, most of which do not even know.  Since hepatitis is not limited to one location or one group of people, everyone around the world needs to understand the disease burden and the steps they can take for prevention, testing and treatment.  

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The ABC’s of Hepatitis

Hepatitis” means “inflammation” of the liver and it can be caused by things such as bacterial and viral infections, toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, and heavy alcohol use. There are currently five hepatitis viruses that have been identified that specifically attack the liver and cause “viral hepatitis”. The most common types are A, B, and C, but there is also D and E.

All of the hepatitis viruses cause a new or “acute” infection, but only the hepatitis B and C viruses can result in a “chronic” infection that increases the risk of a person developing cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

Hepatitis A virus (HAV):

Hepatitis A virus can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. It is highly contagious and usually transmitted when the virus is taken in by mouth from contact with objects, food, or drinks that are contaminated by the feces (or stool) of an infected person.

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The best way to prevent an infection is by getting vaccinated with the 2-dose series of hepatitis which is routinely recommended for all children, travelers to certain countries, and persons at risk for the disease. Fortunately, the vaccine has helped reduce the incidence of hepatitis A, but there are still outbreaks in the U.S. every year. In 2014, there were an estimated 2,500 cases of acute hepatitis A infections in the United States. So far in 2017, there have been 275 cases in San Diego alone, resulting in 194 hospitalizations and 8 deaths.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV):

Hepatitis B virus can be transmitted through the body fluids of an infected person. This can happen through intimate contact, contact with the blood or open sore of an infected person, sharing needles, syringes, razors or toothbrushes, or from a mother to her baby at birth. Unlike hepatitis A, it is not routinely spread through food or water. However, it is possible to spread to babies when they receive pre-chewed food from an infected person.  Surprisingly, hepatitis B virus can survive outside the body for as long as 7 days. During that time, the virus can still cause infection if it enters the body of a person who is not infected.

Many people with chronic hepatitis B virus infection do not know they are infected since they do not feel or look sick. It is believed that 90% of people living with hepatitis B are unaware of their infection status. Unfortunately, this means they are often unknowingly spreading it to others.

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For some people, hepatitis B is an acute, or short-term, illness but for others, it can become a long-term, chronic infection. The younger a person is when infected, the greater their risk of developing chronic disease.  For example, approximately 90% of infected infants become chronically infected, compared with 2%–6% of adults. This is why the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine is so critical in preventing chronic infections that can lead to serious health issues, like cirrhosis or liver cancer.  (To understand why babies need the vaccine at birth, see a guest post written by Carolyn Aldigé, President and Founder of the, Prevent Cancer Foundation here.)

In the U.S. an estimated 850,000-2.2 million persons have chronic hepatitis B. However, rates of acute hepatitis B in the U.S. have declined by approximately 82% since 1991, when the routine vaccination of children was implemented. Yet, in 2015, it was estimated that 257 million people are still living with hepatitis B infection worldwide.

Hepatitis C virus (HCV):

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