Stealthy disease threatens many and can be passed on to others

3/5/2014

Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by a viral infection. The disease can prevent this powerhouse organ from doing the vital work of processing nutrients, metabolizing medication and clearing the body of toxic waste. Hepatitis also is a leading cause of liver cancer and a primary reason people have liver transplants.

"The most common forms of viral hepatitis are identified as hepatitis A, B and C," says Dr. James Quenan, Chief Medical Officer at Amery Regional Medical Center. "Hepatitis A rarely is life-threatening and usually goes away on its own as the liver heals itself, although symptoms may last a few months. Hepatitis B can cause severe illness and even death. It's a leading cause of cirrhosis, which is permanent scarring of the liver. Hepatitis C is the most serious form of the disease, causing thousands of deaths each year in the United States."

People can be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, but not hepatitis C. Sometimes people live with hepatitis for a lifetime, often with debilitating effects. When the disease is ongoing, it's considered chronic hepatitis. When people experience temporary symptoms, common with hepatitis A, that’s called acute hepatitis. About 17,000 people in the United States contract hepatitis A annually and most recover within a few months with no lasting liver damage.

Two other types of hepatitis and their related viruses, identified as D and E, are uncommon in the United States. However, travelers to certain regions -- including Asia, Mexico, India and Africa -- sometimes contract hepatitis D in those locations. Hepatitis D is particularly threatening to pregnant women.

The World Hepatitis Alliance (WHA) estimates that 500 million people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B and C. An international non-profit umbrella agency for organizations working in the field of viral hepatitis, the WHA is sponsoring World Hepatitis Day on July 28 to raise awareness of the disease and promote prevention and access to testing and treatment.

Hepatitis also can result from drug and alcohol use, autoimmune liver disease, obesity, bacterial infections, ingestion of environmental toxins, and overuse of some medications, such as acetaminophen. If hepatitis is brought on by these causes, it cannot be passed to another person.

The different types of viral hepatitis are transmitted to others from an infected person in different ways. Hepatitis A usually results from ingesting fecal matter from an infected person, even in microscopic amounts. Hepatitis B is contracted through contact with infectious blood, semen or other body fluids. Hepatitis C, the most threatening of the three common types, usually is passed through contact with blood from an infected person.

Symptoms are similar for all types of viral hepatitis and often mimic the flu. See a medical professional if you experience one or more of these symptoms in a severe or on-going manner:

  • Fever 
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gray-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice 

Viral hepatitis can be passed from infected people through contaminated food or drink, instruments used for body piercing and tattooing, unprotected sexual contact, improperly cleaned medical equipment, and needles or straws shared during drug use. Healthcare workers are at risk from unintended needle pricks and other exposure to infected patients' body fluids. Infected mothers can pass hepatitis to their newborns, and the disease can spread in families due to close physical contact. Hepatitis can be passed through a blood transfusion if the donor was infected, but this rarely happens in the United States now that blood screening is in place.

"An estimated 3,000 people in the United States die each year from illnesses related to the hepatitis B virus," says Pat Cooper, vice president for clinical operations at Quorum Health Resources (QHR). "Illnesses related to the hepatitis C virus take a much bigger toll, with an estimated 12,000 fatalities annually. About 55,000 new hepatitis B and C infections occur each year in this country. These illnesses have a significant effect on productivity and healthcare expenditures, both for patients and for society as a whole."

Since hepatitis has no cure, patients can be monitored to track its progress. Anti-viral drugs may be used in chronic cases. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and B are recommended for people at high risk based on their personal behavior, workplace exposure, travel plans and other factors. The vaccinations now typically are given at a young age to children in the United States.

One bright spot is that those who recover from hepatitis may have a lifetime immunity to the disease. However, those who have experienced it would attest that this is hardly a reason to take chances with contracting what can be a lifelong, often deadly, liver condition.

For more information about World Hepatitis Day, see the World Hepatitis Alliance website at http://www.worldhepatitisalliance.org.

This article provided courtesy of Amery Regional Medical Center and Quorum Health Resources, LLC (“QHR”).

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