It’s World Hepatitis Day on July 28th. One of just four health awareness days endorsed by the World Health Organization, WHD is a key event on the calendar for thousands of people affected by viral hepatitis across the globe.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis means ‘inflammation of the liver’ and usually occurs as a result of a viral infection or drinking too much alcohol over a long period. Symptoms of hepatitis can include fever, tiredness, abdominal pains, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, jaundice, dark urine, pale stools, and itchy skin. There are five different types of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D and E. Each type is different and varies in severity, however each can lead to serious complications such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).
Hepatitis A is often referred to as a traveller’s disease; it is not common in the UK, but can be picked up when you go abroad. It is one of the less severe types of viral hepatitis, but in rare cases can lead to liver failure.
- It is spread via the faeces of an infected person, and is most commonly transmitted through contaminated food or water, or during sex
- Most widespread in sub-Saharan and northern Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America and parts of East Asia
- Preventable through the hepatitis A vaccine, good hygiene practice and being careful about what you eat and drink when you go abroad
The hepatitis A vaccine is advised for people travelling to high-risk areas, men who have sex with men, people who may be contaminated due to their line of work (e.g. sewage worker), and people who live with someone infected with the disease.
Like hepatitis A, hepatitis B is more common outside of the UK. It can be acute (short-term) but it can also turn into a chronic infection, which can in turn lead to complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
- It is spread via the bodily fluids of an infected person. It is most commonly transmitted during unprotected sex or when sharing drug injecting equipment. It’s also common for infected mothers to pass the virus on to their babies.
- Most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, South Asia, South America, southern areas of Europe, and the Middle East
- Preventable through the hepatitis B vaccine, safe sex, never sharing drug injecting equipment, safe sex, and avoiding medical treatment/getting a tattoo when you go abroad
One specific complication of hepatitis B is that it can allow you to become infected with hepatitis D. There is a vaccination for hepatitis B, which will help protect you from both hepatitis B and hepatitis D. If you think you have been exposed to the virus, you can also receive the vaccine as an emergency treatment.
Hepatitis C is the most common form of hepatitis in the UK. Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C can develop into a chronic condition, and later in life cause complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
- It is spread via the bodily fluids of an infected person, and in particular their blood. The leading cause of hepatitis C in the UK is sharing injecting equipment.
- Other causes include unprotected sex and ‘needlestick’ injuries. In rare cases, infected mothers can pass the disease onto their baby.
- Most widespread in Europe, although it is found across the globe
- Preventable through never sharing drug injecting equipment, safe sex, and avoiding medical treatment/getting a tattoo when you go abroad
Chronic hepatitis C can cause unpleasant symptoms, and can lead to the scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) which is characterised by jaundice, vomiting blood, dark stools and fluid build-up in the legs and abdomen. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are treatments available to manage it.
Hepatitis D is unusual in that it can only survive in the body if hepatitis B is already present.
- It is spread through bodily fluids and is most common outside of the UK, in the same areas where hepatitis B is a risk
- The combination of the hepatitis B and hepatitis D viruses can increase your risk of serious complications such as cirrhosis
The Hepatitis B vaccination will also help protect you from contracting Hepatitis D
The hepatitis E virus is the most common cause of acute hepatitis in the UK.
- Is spread via the faeces of an infected person, usually in contaminated food or water.
- The virus can also be carried by pigs, wild boar, deer and rabbits, which means you can contract hepatitis E by eating under-cooked meat.
- Most widespread in East Asia and South Asia, however it is found worldwide
- Preventable through good hygiene practice, cooking meat properly, and being careful about what you eat and drink when you go abroad
Hepatitis E normally passes within a few months however it can become chronic (usually in immunosuppressed patients).
Treating and living with hepatitis
Acute hepatitis does not typically require specific medical treatment – you can normally self-medicate with over-the-counter painkillers. Prescription medication can be provided to help with the worst symptoms. If you develop chronic hepatitis, you will require specific medical treatment. Common treatments for hepatitis include interferon, which encourages the immune system to attack the virus, and antivirals, which stop the virus from multiplying in the body. It is likely that your doctor will also encourage you to adopt a healthier lifestyle, avoid alcohol, and be careful about not passing the infection on (e.g. by always practising safe sex).
In some cases, hepatitis can be completely cured with the right treatments; in other cases, it may require life-long treatment. The main thing to remember is that early diagnosis can help prevent later complications and transmission to other people. If you think you might have been exposed to any of the hepatitis viruses, it’s a good idea to get tested.