Worldwide, 300 million people who are living with viral hepatitis are unaware they have it. On World Hepatitis Day, 28 July, there is an international call for people from across the world to take action, raise awareness and join in the quest to find the “missing millions”.
So what is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, called A, B, C, D or E. These five types are of greatest concern because of the amount of illness and death they cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread.
In New Zealand hepatitis C contributes to half of all liver transplants. An estimated 54,000 people in this country are living with the Hepatitis C virus.
How do people catch it?
You can get infected with Hepatitis through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids. The hepatitis B virus can be spread by having unprotected sex or by living in a household with a person with chronic (life-long) hepatitis B virus infection.
Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. The most common modes of infection include unsafe injection practices, inadequate sterilisation of medical equipment and unscreened blood and blood products.
What makes viral hepatitis a worldwide health problem?
Chronic hepatitis B and C are life-threatening infectious diseases that cause serious liver damage, cancer, and premature death.
Hepatitis B and C are silent epidemics, hitting children and marginalised populations the hardest; this includes people who inject drugs, indigenous peoples, prisoners, men who have sex with men, migrants and people living with HIV/AIDs.
Globally, 90% of people living with hepatitis B and 80% living with hepatitis C are unaware they have the disease. This means they will very likely develop fatal liver disease or liver cancer at some point in their lives. It also means they can unknowingly pass the infection on to others.
There are vaccines and treatments for hepatitis B and there is now a medicine that can cure hepatitis C. This means it is really important that people are aware of this disease and go to their doctor if they think there is a chance they might have caught it from someone.
How to prevent hepatitis
There are vaccines against Hepatitis A and B. Check with your doctor if you are going overseas. If you are traveling to some countries your doctor might recommend you have a hepatitis vaccine (and possibly other vaccines as well). If going to India for instance they might recommend Hepatitis A and B vaccines. Hepatitis B vaccines are recommended for many European countries.
Currently there is no vaccination for hepatitis C. To reduce risk of getting this disease it is important to not share needles and other items such as toothbrushes, razors or nail scissors with an infected person. You should also avoid getting tattoos or body piercings from unlicensed places.
New treatments can cure hepatitis C infection.
The older treatments using interferon were not always successful. Recent changes in New Zealand mean that patients with hepatitis C now have access to highly effective Direct Acting Anti-virals (DAA). At least nine out of ten people who take these new medicines as advised by their doctor can expect to be cured. Treatment for many patients is through your usual family doctor.
So if you know people who might have hepatitis encourage them to visit their doctor.
Written by Linda Caddick
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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