World Hepatitis Day is July 28

World Hepatitis Day is Friday, July 28. This day is dedicated to hepatitis awareness and prevention. 

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood and fights infections. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis. However, hepatitis is most often caused by a group of viruses. In the U.S., the most common types of viral hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the Hepatitis A virus. While Hepatitis A cases have decreased more than 90 percent over the last several decades, it still occurs in the U.S. New cases are now estimated to be around 3,000 each year. Many experts believe this decline is a result of the vaccination of children and people at risk for Hepatitis A. Many of the new cases, however, are from American travelers who got infected while traveling to parts of the world where Hepatitis A is more common.

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter − even in microscopic amounts − from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person. To treat Hepatitis A, doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, fluids and medical monitoring.

The best way to prevent Hepatitis A is by getting vaccinated. Experts recommend the vaccine for all children and people with certain risk factors and medical conditions. The vaccine is also recommended for travelers to certain international countries, even if travel occurs for short times or on closed resorts. The Hepatitis A vaccine is safe and effective and given as two shots, six months apart. Both shots are needed for long-term protection.

Hepatitis B can be a serious liver disease. Acute Hepatitis B refers to a short-term infection that occurs within the first six months after someone is infected with the virus. Some people, especially adults, are able to recover from the virus without treatment. People who clear the virus become immune and cannot get infected with the Hepatitis B virus again. Chronic Hepatitis B refers to a lifelong infection with the Hepatitis B virus. The likelihood a person develops a chronic infection depends on the age at which someone becomes infected. Up to 90 percent of infants infected with the Hepatitis B virus will develop a chronic infection while about five percent of adults will develop chronic Hepatitis B. Over time, chronic Hepatitis B can cause serious health problems.

All pregnant women are routinely tested for Hepatitis B. If a woman has Hepatitis B, timely vaccination can help prevent the spread of the virus to her baby. People with certain medical conditions should be tested, and get vaccinated if needed. This includes people with HIV infection, people who receive chemotherapy and people on hemodialysis. People who inject drugs are at increased risk for Hepatitis B.

Chronic Hepatitis C can cause serious health problems including liver disease, liver failure and even liver cancer. A small percent of people are able to recover from the virus without treatment in the first six months. Unfortunately, most people who get infected are not able to clear the Hepatitis C virus and develop a chronic, or lifelong, infection. 

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Most people become infected with Hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes or any other equipment to inject drugs. While rare, sexual transmission of Hepatitis C is possible. Hepatitis C can also be spread when getting tattoos and body piercings in unlicensed facilities, informal settings or with non-sterile instruments. Infected mothers can pass the disease onto their infants.

Testing for Hepatitis C is simple with a blood test called Hepatitis C antibody, but a positive test does not mean the person has the virus circulating and an additional confirmatory test is necessary. There are multiple new medications allowing physicians to treat Hepatitis C, very well tolerated and less toxic than in the past.

This article was written by Joel Terriquez, M.D., medical director of Infectious Diseases and Prevention for Northern Arizona Healthcare