May has been designated as national “Hepatitis Awareness Month,” a time set aside to raise the level of awareness of the disease and also remind health care providers and the public of the importance being tested.
In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
While each can produce similar symptoms, each hepatitis virus affects the liver differently, has different routes of transmission, and has different populations that are commonly affected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed an online Hepatitis Risk Assessment to help people find out if they should get tested or vaccinated for viral hepatitis. The assessment, which takes only five minutes, will provide personalized testing and vaccination recommendations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection that can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. The hepatitis A virus is usually spread when a person ingests the virus from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person. Hepatitis A can be 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.
Hepatitis A is common in many parts of the world, and many new cases of hepatitis A in the United States have occurred from international travelers eating or drinking contaminated food or water. CDC recommends, therefore, that travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common get vaccinated in advance of travel. Even if travel is restricted to resort destinations, it is still possible to get infected with the hepatitis A virus.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis B virus. For some people, especially those infected as infants, the infection leads to a chronic or lifelong illness. Left undetected and untreated, chronic hepatitis B can lead to serious liver problems, including liver cancer.
The hepatitis B virus is spread primarily when blood, semen, or certain other body fluids from a person infected enters the body of someone who is not infected. The virus can be spread through sexual transmission and through contact with blood, such as sharing injection drug equipment. The hepatitis B virus can also be passed from an infected woman to her baby at birth, if her baby does not receive the hepatitis B vaccine series of shots beginning at birth.
As a result, the hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all infants at birth and anyone else at increased risk.
Hepatitis B is common in many parts of the world, including Asia, the Pacific Islands and parts of Africa. Unfortunately, many people got infected before the hepatitis B vaccine was widely available. As a result, it is important to identify and treat all people who have hepatitis B to decrease their risk of developing liver cancer. Hepatitis B testing followed by appropriate treatment is associated with a 50%–80% reduction in the risk of liver cancer. That’s why CDC recommends anyone born in areas where hepatitis B is common, or whose parents were born in these regions, get tested for hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Most people who become infected with the virus go on to develop a chronic infection that causes serious liver problems. In fact, hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and the leading cause of liver transplants. New data indicate that hepatitis C kills more people in the United States than 60 other infectious diseases combined.
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when blood from a person infected enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment to inject drugs.
In fact, rates of new infections have been on the rise in young people who inject drugs in recent years. While rare, sexual transmission of hepatitis C is possible. Before screening of the blood supply began in 1990, hepatitis C could be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. By 1992, with widespread screening, the hepatitis C virus was virtually eliminated from the blood supply.
People born from 1945-1965, or baby boomers, are six times more likely to have hepatitis C.
Unfortunately, the reason that baby boomers have high rates of hepatitis C is not completely understood. Most baby boomers are believed to have become infected in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when transmission of hepatitis C was the highest. Since many can live with hepatitis C for decades without symptoms and often go undiagnosed, hepatitis C testing is important to identify and treat those living with the disease – ultimately reducing their risk of liver cancer. As a result, CDC recommends everyone born from 1945-1965 get tested for hepatitis C.
Edited by Jesus Chan
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