World Hepatitis Day is July 28th. It provides an opportunity to learn the global burden of this disease, understand the different types of hepatitis, and the actions individuals can take to prevent the spread of it.
Hepatitis is a general term meaning inflammation of the liver. Viral hepatitis is a group of infectious diseases that include hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E and it affects millions of people worldwide, causing both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) liver disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 325 million people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C. Deaths from hepatitis are increasing.
The five hepatitis viruses – A, B, C, D and E – are distinct. They can have different modes of transmission, affect different populations, and result in different health outcomes.
Hepatitis A is primarily spread when someone ingests the virus from contact with food, drinks, or objects contaminated by feces from an infected person or an individual has close personal contact with someone who is infected with the virus. Hepatitis A does not cause chronic liver disease and is rarely fatal, but it can cause serious symptoms. Hepatitis A can be prevented through improved sanitation, food safety, and vaccination.
Hepatitis B is often spread through contact with blood and other body fluids through injection drug use, unsterile medical equipment, sexual contact, or during birth from an infected mother to her baby. The hepatitis B virus can cause both acute and chronic infections. If infected at birth or during early childhood, people are more likely to develop a chronic infection, which can lead to liver cirrhosis or even liver cancer. Getting the hepatitis B vaccine is the most effective way to prevent hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. Infection can occur through injection drug use and unsafe medical injections and other medical procedures. Mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis C is also possible. Hepatitis C can cause both acute and chronic infections, but most people who get infected develop a chronic infection. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. With new treatments, over 90% of people with hepatitis C can be cured within 2-3 months, reducing the risk of death from liver cancer and cirrhosis. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C but research in this area is ongoing.
Hepatitis D is passed through contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D only occurs in people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus. People who are not already infected with hepatitis B can prevent hepatitis D by getting vaccinated against hepatitis B.
Hepatitis E is spread mainly through contact with contaminated drinking water. Hepatitis E usually clears in 4-6 weeks so there is no specific treatment except treatment aimed at specific symptoms. However, pregnant women infected with hepatitis E are at considerable risk of mortality from this infection. Hepatitis E is found worldwide. Improved sanitation and food safety can help prevent new cases of hepatitis E. There is currently no vaccine available except in China, but this vaccine has not been approved in other countries.
A general list for preventing the spread of all types of hepatitis include the following:
- Getting vaccinated (where appropriate)
- Getting proper education and counseling about prevention and treatment options
- Using proper hand washing and hygiene
- Ensuring safe handling and disposal of sharps and waste and not sharing needles
- Taking proper precautions when traveling (such as avoiding raw or undercooked foods, and not drinking water from unknown sources)
To learn more about hepatitis and other infectious diseases, check out our Certificate in Infectious Diseases and Infection Control, or check out the individual course in The ABCs of Hepatitis.
If you would like to raise awareness or take action, check out the official World Hepatitis Day website at www.worldhepatitisday.org.