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Hepatitis ABCs: Get Vaccinated, Get Tested

Today's Medicine

Published: July 28, 2020

 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does another disease claiming thousands of lives worldwide every day – viral hepatitis. Viral hepatitis affects more than 325 million people around the world, and 290 million of those people are living with it unaware. Most recently in the U.S., we’ve been facing widespread person-to-person outbreaks of hepatitis A – an infectious disease that could be eradicated if everyone got the vaccine.

Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that causes acute or chronic liver problems, including liver cancer, liver failure and death. The most common strains in the U.S. are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Most people with viral hepatitis are asymptomatic, but symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite or upset stomach
  • Stomach pain or vomiting
  • Fever
  • Dark urine, light-colored stools or diarrhea
  • Joint pain and fatigue

As viral hepatitis deaths increase each year, it’s important to educate yourself on the different strains and how to prevent them. Two of those strains have a simple solution: get vaccinated. 

 

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious, vaccine-preventable strain common in countries without modern sanitation but also currently spreading in the U.S. due to foodborne outbreaks. Hepatitis A spreads by ingesting fecal matter – even microscopic amounts. It can spread through contaminated food and water, sexual contact or by touching contaminated diaper changing areas and toilets. 

The good news is that most people infected with hepatitis A will recover with no lasting liver damage. But they can be ill for two to six months, and in rare cases, death may occur. Not everyone infected with hepatitis A experiences symptoms, but adults are more likely to develop symptoms than children. Treatment includes rest, good nutrition and fluids. 

Everyone can receive the hepatitis A vaccine, but it’s especially recommended for:

  • Children aged 12-23 months
  • Children and young people aged 2-18 years who have not previously been vaccinated 
  • International travelers
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People at risk for exposure at work
  • Families preparing for international adoption
  • People with hemophilia or chronic liver disease 
  • Intravenous drug users
  • People who are homeless 

 

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is one of the leading causes of liver cancer, but it’s also prevented by a vaccine. Two out of three people don’t know they’re infected with hepatitis B, and it can lead to lasting damage or death if untreated. Infected adults are more likely to recover without long-term effects, but more than 90% of infected, unimmunized infants will develop a chronic infection. 

About 50% of people infected with hepatitis B in the U.S. are Asian American and Pacific Islander, and the virus in that population is typically passed from mother to baby during pregnancy. Pregnant women in general have a high risk of transmitting hepatitis B to their babies, and they’re at a higher risk for pregnancy complications. Treatment is similar to hepatitis A, but those with chronic infection may require regular monitoring and antiviral drugs. 

Hepatitis B is spread through bodily fluids and can be transmitted by an infected person through:

  • Birth
  • Sex
  • Sharing needles, syringes and medical equipment
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors and other personal items
  • Outbreaks in health care facilities 

Everyone should be vaccinated for hepatitis B, but especially:

  • All infants
  • Children and people under the age of 19 who haven’t been vaccinated
  • People at risk through sexual exposure
  • People at risk through exposure to blood
  • International travelers
  • People younger than 60 with diabetes
  • People with hepatitis C, chronic liver disease, chronic kidney disease or HIV
  • People in jail or prison

 

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants, and it is not prevented by a vaccine. An estimated 2.4 million people in the U.S. are living with hepatitis C, and 50% of those infected don’t know it. Liver damage often doesn’t appear until decades after infection. Hepatitis C is very serious, and most people infected with the virus develop chronic hepatitis C. It’s spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Some ways hepatitis C can be transmitted include:

  • Birth
  • Sharing contaminated needles and syringes
  • Receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • Outbreaks in health care facilities 

The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by not engaging in behaviors that put you at risk. Testing is vital because if hepatitis C is caught early, most people will be cured after eight to 12 weeks of treatment. You should get tested for hepatitis C if:

  • You were born between 1945 and 1965
  • You have ever injected illegal drugs
  • You received blood transfusions or an organ transplant before 1992
  • You live with HIV
  • You are on hemodialysis
  • You have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
  • You were born to a mother with hepatitis C
  • You are pregnant

 

Spread awareness, not disease

If you ignore an infectious disease, it will spread. With so many people living with hepatitis unaware, that makes awareness, vaccination and testing vitally important. If you haven’t been vaccinated for hepatitis A or B, schedule an appointment with your health care provider. Also talk to your provider about getting tested for hepatitis B and C, especially if any risk factors apply to you. While it’s top of mind, make sure you and your children are up-to-date on all vaccines

With COVID-19 continuing to spread and affect vaccination rates worldwide, start with yourself and help ensure that a vaccine-preventable pandemic isn’t next. 

 

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Rudolf Kotula

About the Author:

Dr. Rudolf Kotula is a board-certified infectious disease physician. He specializes in areas such as antibiotic resistance, travel medicine and infection prevention.

You can visit Dr. Kotula at Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency.

See More Articles by Rudolf Kotula