The month of May is designated as Hepatitis Awareness Month in the United States, and May 19th is Hepatitis Testing Day. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. While each of these can produce similar symptoms, each hepatitis virus affects the liver differently, has different routes of transmission, and has different populations that are commonly affected.
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Major non-viral causes of hepatitis are alcohol and drugs. Following is key information about Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, the most common types.
- Hepatitis A – Is often acquired from the stool of one person to the mouth of another. Therefore, it is often associated with poor personal hygiene such as not always washing one’s hands well. One should also take other measures to avoid direct contact with food and water that might be contaminated. Eating raw shellfish that is contaminated can occasionally cause hepatitis A.
- Hepatitis B – Often occurs among intravenous (IV) or injecting drug users, many of whom share contaminated needles and syringes. It is also transmitted sexually, in both heterosexual and homosexual activity. Hepatitis B virus can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her child during birth. Hospital personnel who have contact with blood are at increased risk of hepatitis B, although established risk reducing measures should be taken.
- Hepatitis C – Is most often transmitted by IV drug users. Although sexual transmission is possible, it is not common. People with hepatitis C have an increased risk of developing: (a) chronic hepatitis, (b) liver cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, with decreased function, and (b) liver cancer. Hepatitis C also commonly occurs in people with alcoholic liver disease. Fortunately, hepatitis C can be cured.
One in 30 Baby Boomers (born 1945 – 1965) has hepatitis C and most don’t even know it. A person infected with hepatitis C can live with it for decades without any symptoms or feeling sick. By the time symptoms do appear, liver damage is often advanced. Also,left untreated, hepatitis C can result in cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.
Who is at increased risk for Hepatitis C Virus (hepatitis C)?
The following persons are at increased risk for hepatitis C:
- Current or former injection drug users, including those who injected only once many years ago
- Persons who received clotting factor concentrates (which are used to prevent or control bleeding) made before 1987, when more advanced methods for manufacturing those products were developed
- Persons who received blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before July 1992, when better testing of blood donors became available
- Chronic hemodialysis (artificial kidney) patients
- Persons with known exposure to hepatitis C, such as
- health care workers after needle sticks involving hepatitis C positive (infected) blood
- recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested HVC-positive
- Persons with HIV infection or AIDS
- Children born to HVC-positive mothers
Anyone can be at risk of hepatitis, given the size of the global epidemic.
With better information and knowledge about hepatitis risks, people can prevent infection and passing the infection on to others. To do this, however, people should seek testing and learn if they need treatment, if they are at increased risk. Recent scientific advances have made today’s treatments for hepatitis C shorter and more effective, with cure rates of around 95% and an average length of treatment of 12 weeks. According to the CDC, all U.S. Baby Boomers should get a one-time test for the Hepatitis C virus. However, since HVC testing is not currently part of routine blood work, one must ask for it specifically. All it takes is a simple blood test.
Remember the Health Power motto: Knowledge + Action = Power!