Public Health Column from the Genesee County Health Department
By Brenden A. Bedard, MPH deputy Public Health director
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month: Learn the ABCs of Viral Hepatitis
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month. Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected.
“Heavy alcohol use, some medications, toxins, and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis” said Brenden Bedard, director of Community Health Services of Genesee and Orleans counties.
“In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Although all types of viral hepatitis can cause similar symptoms, they are spread in different ways, have different treatments, and some are more serious than others."
Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. People who get hepatitis A may feel sick for a few weeks to several months but usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool and blood of people who are infected and can be spread when someone ingests the virus, usually through eating contaminated food or drink or through close personal contact with an infected person.
Hepatitis A is very contagious and people can even spread the virus before they get symptoms. Thankfully, hepatitis A is easily prevented with a safe and effective vaccine, which is recommended for all children at one year of age and for adults who may be at risk, including travelers to certain international countries.
The hepatitis A vaccine is also strongly recommended for food service workers. Bedard said “a food service worker can unknowingly spread the virus to customers or other staff by contaminating surfaces, utensils and/or food, which can make unvaccinated individuals very sick. By receiving the vaccine, food service workers can prevent unnecessary illness from spreading in the community.”
The hepatitis A vaccine is a two dose series that is administered six months apart.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. Individuals who become infected, especially young children, can go on to develop a chronic or lifelong infection. Over time, chronic hepatitis B can cause serious liver damage, and even liver cancer. Hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine.
Hepatitis B can be passed from an infected woman to her baby at birth, if her baby does not receive the hepatitis B vaccine. As a result, the hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all infants at birth and adults at risk.
The CDC recommends pregnant women, men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, household and sexual contacts of someone infected, anyone born or whose parents were born in areas where hepatitis B is common, and others with certain medical conditions get tested for hepatitis B.
Treatments are available that can delay or reduce the risk of developing liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. Most people who get infected will develop a chronic, or lifelong, infection. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems including liver disease, liver failure, and even liver cancer. Hepatitis C is usually spread when someone comes into contact with blood from an infected person.
Bedard said “most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment to inject drugs. Rates of new infections have been on the rise, particularly among young adults, which coincides with the recent increase in injection drug use related tothe United States’ opioid crisis.”
People with hepatitis C often have no symptoms so testing is the only way to know if you are infected. CDC now recommends all adults and pregnant women get tested for hepatitis C, in addition to anyone with ongoing risk and certain medical conditions. There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
Fortunately, treatments are available that can cure hepatitis C. Once diagnosed, most people with hepatitis C can be cured in just 8 to 12 weeks, reducing liver cancer risk by 75 percent. (1.)
(1.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/awareness/index.htm. Reviewed May 8, 2020. Accessed May 18, 2020.