What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that results in liver cell damage and destruction. There are 5 main types of the hepatitis virus that have been identified:
This type of hepatitis is usually spread by feces that comes in contact with the mouth, or food and water that has been contaminated by feces. It may also be spread by infection that comes from contact with blood (which is rare). It may also be spread by blood-borne infection (which is rare). The following is a list of modes of transmission for hepatitis A:
- Consuming food made by someone who touched infected feces
- Drinking water that is contaminated by infected feces. This is a problem in developing countries with poor sewage removal.
- Touching an infected person's feces. This may happen with poor hand-washing.
- Outbreaks may happen in large childcare centers, especially when there are children in diapers
- Sexual contact with an infected person
A highly protective vaccine for hepatitis A has been developed and is now available. It is now recommended for all U.S. infants and adults in certain circumstances.
Hepatitis B (HBV) has a wide range of signs and symptoms. It can be mild, without symptoms, or it may cause chronic hepatitis and, in some cases, can lead to liver failure and death. Transmission of hepatitis B virus happens through body fluid exposure, such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or saliva. Needle sticks, or cuts from sharp instruments contaminated with hepatitis B, using an infected person's personal items (razors, toothbrushes), and sex with an infected person are the main ways to get hepatitis B from another person in developed countries. Mother-to-baby transmission is the main way babies get hepatitis B worldwide. Infants are highly likely to develop the disease if they are born to a mother who has the virus and if they are not vaccinated within 24 hours of birth. Further protection is provided if the baby receives hepatitis B immune globulin. Infected children often spread the virus to other children if there is frequent contact, or if a child has many scrapes or cuts. The following describes people who are at risk for developing hepatitis B:
- Children born to mothers who have hepatitis B. The illness may present at any time after the child is born.
- Children who are born to mothers who have immigrated from a region where hepatitis B is widespread. Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India southeast Asia and China are among those regions.
- People who live in long-term care facilities or who are disabled
- People who live in households where another member is infected with the virus
- People who have a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia
- People who need dialysis for kidney failure
- People who participate in high-risk activities. These include intravenous (IV) drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact.
- People who have jobs that involve contact with human blood
- People who received blood transfusions or blood products before the early 1990s
A vaccine for hepatitis B does exist and is now widely used for routine childhood immunization and for catchup immunization for teenagers as well as high-risk individuals. The CDC now recommends that universal infant hepatitis B vaccination should begin at birth. Hepatitis B is treatable. It is controllable, but not curable.
The symptoms of hepatitis C are usually mild and gradual. Children and adults often show no symptoms at all. Transmission of hepatitis C happens primarily from contact with infected blood. It can also happen from sexual contact, or from an infected mother to her baby. Although hepatitis C has milder symptoms initially, it leads to chronic liver disease in a majority of people who are infected. According to the CDC, hepatitis C is the leading indication for liver transplantation. It is also the number one cause of liver cancer in the United States. With some cases of hepatitis C, no mode of transmission can be identified.
The following describes people who may be at risk for contracting hepatitis C:
- People born between 1945 and 1965
- Children born to mothers who are infected with the virus
- People who have a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia and received clotting factors before 1987
- People who need dialysis for kidney failure
- Individuals who received a blood transfusion before 1992
- People who participate in high-risk activities, such as intravenous drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact
A screening is available and is recommended for people born between 1945-1965. Contact your primary care provider to schedule your screening.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. People who are at risk should be checked regularly for hepatitis C. People who have hepatitis C should be monitored closely for signs of chronic hepatitis and liver failure. There is a current treatment for HCV that has a very high cure rate and changes patients' health and future outlook.
This form of hepatitis can happen only in the presence of hepatitis B. If an individual has hepatitis B and does not show symptoms, or shows very mild symptoms, infection with hepatitis D can put that person at risk for liver failure and liver cancer that progresses rapidly. Hepatitis D can happen at the same time as the initial infection with B, or it may show up much later as a new superinfection. Transmission of hepatitis D happens the same way as hepatitis B, except the transmission from mother to baby is less common. Hepatitis D is curable with treatment in about 15% of patients.
This form of hepatitis is similar to hepatitis A, in that transmission occurs through fecal-oral contamination. It is less common than hepatitis A. Hepatitis E is most common in poorly-developed countries and is seen in the United States. There is no vaccine for hepatitis E at this time in the United States, but there is a vaccine in China that has a high protective level. Hepatitis E is a serious health concern in pregnant women.