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It's easier than you think to protect yourself against hepatitis

It's easier than you think to protect yourself against hepatitis

Jul. 28, 2022

By Katie Minor

Did you know that every time you wash your hands, you are strengthening your protection against viral illnesses like hepatitis A?

It doesn’t take much time out of your day. Just 30 seconds, and you are lowering your chances of getting a viral infection.

If you ever think that it isn’t worth it, consider this: Every 30 seconds — the same amount of time it takes to wash your hands — someone dies from a viral hepatitis related illness.

Today is World Hepatitis Day, which means we’re looking at how to identify each type of hepatitis and how we can prevent this viral disease.

There are five main types of hepatitis (A, B, C, D, and E), but the most common yet preventable types of hepatitis are A, B, and C.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It is very contagious, and like COVID-19, people can even spread the virus before they get symptoms. Hepatitis A is usually spread through eating contaminated food or drink, through close personal contact with an infected person, or via the oral-fecal route. That essentially means an infected individual doesn’t wash hands after going to the bathroom and then spreads the infection to others via a handshake, food preparation, etc.

Luckily, there is a vaccine for this type of virus. Children should receive the vaccine at the age of 1, and adults should receive it if they never have.

Those who should especially consider it are men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, those who may be traveling to a country where the virus is common and people with clotting factor disorders.

The symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and joint pain. While those indications can be vague, more specific symptoms include jaundice, which causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow, and dark-colored urine.

If you think that you may have been exposed to hepatitis A, contact your doctor or MCHD Clinical Services. If you have been exposed, your doctor may give you either a hepatitis A vaccine or immunoglobulin, both of which are only effective if you receive them within two weeks of exposure.

Hepatitis A usually clears up in healthy people. People with underlying conditions are more prone to complications, which could require hospitalization and even lead to death. Once you have had hepatitis A, you cannot get it again. Your body develops antibodies to protect you for life.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B can be more severe than hepatitis A. For some people, the infection only lasts for a few weeks; this is acute hepatitis B. Those who develop chronic hepatitis B will have a lifelong infection that can cause liver cancer, cirrhosis or death.

Hepatitis B can spread through bodily fluids like blood and semen, which can happen through sexual contact; sharing needles, syringes or other drug-injection equipment; or from mother to baby at birth. It cannot be spread by kissing, hugging, breastfeeding, coughing or through food or water.

There is a vaccine for this virus, and it is recommended for infants, children under 19 years old, and those who are likely to come in contact with blood from infected people. The younger the infected person is, the more likely it is that their hepatitis will be chronic.

Hepatitis C

The third type, hepatitis C, is spread when infected blood enters the body of an uninfected person. This can happen by being born to an infected mother or getting tattoos from unregulated places, but it is most commonly associated with sharing drug-injection equipment like needles.

The virus often clears from the body on its own, but people can be re-infected. The symptoms of hepatitis C are fatigue, dark urine, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and jaundice.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, and for acute hepatitis C, there is no recommended treatment. However, chronic hepatitis C is typically treated with eight to 12 weeks of pills, and cures more than 90 percent of people.

People with hepatitis C often have no symptoms, but they can still spread the virus; it is important to get tested at least once in your life so that you can get treatment if you need it.

Because the prevalence of hepatitis C is five times higher among those born between 1945 and 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s recommended that those individuals be tested for the virus.

Hepatitis D and E

Hepatitis D is an infection that can only occur in people already infected with hepatitis B. Hepatitis D can be acute or chronic. The hepatitis D virus combined with hepatitis B can cause liver disease to progress faster than hepatitis B alone. There is no vaccine, but it can be prevented by the hepatitis B vaccine in people who are not already infected.

Hepatitis E is not common in developed countries. The virus can be spread by contaminated water, undercooked pork or deer meat and shellfish. It is often less severe than other strains of the virus; most recover completely and are very unlikely to progress from acute to chronic infection. There is no vaccine, but the virus can be avoided with good sanitation and clean drinking water. It’s also important to note that hepatitis E can be more severe in pregnant women.

Gearing up against hepatitis in Monongalia County

Viral hepatitis accounts for 1.34 million deaths per year, making it one of the leading causes of death globally. But let’s look at hepatitis on a smaller scale. Why is it so important to be vigilant against viral hepatitis in our community?

You might recall a story from 2019 about a food service worker at a local establishment who tested positive for hepatitis A. People who had eaten at this establishment were at risk for contracting hepatitis A, and they were encouraged to get vaccinated. 

At the same time, West Virginia was experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis A, largely among those who had used drugs. And since 2018, our state has seen several other hepatitis A outbreaks.

Hepatitis is a worldwide epidemic. But it’s also right here in our community. So remember that by getting vaccinated and being safe, you’re not only protecting yourself; you’re protecting the people around you and contributing to substantial change.

Contact MCHD Clinical Services at 304-598-5119 for appointments for hepatitis vaccines and testing. 

Katie Minor is the public information office assistant at Monongalia County Health Department.

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