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World Hepatitis Day: Here's what you need to know about the virus and how to prevent it

July 28, 2015
World Hepatitis Day logo

More than four million Americans are living with chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C, but most don’t know they are infected and can live for decades without having symptoms.

Early detection

The good news is that many forms of hepatitis can be prevented and treated with success if detected early.

“We are now living in an exciting time with revolutionary treatment that is allowing us to treat hepatitis C with an oral regimen of drugs more than 90% of the time, and without serious side effects that until a couple of years ago was a big deterrent in treatment for some patients,” said Dr. Rony Ghaoui, a gastroenterologist at Baystate Medical Center, who treats patients with the disease.

Disease progression

The bad news is that about 1 out of every 5 patients carrying hepatitis C will eventually progress to cirrhosis or end stage liver disease.

While the virus can be “eradicated at any stage of the disease,” Dr. Ghaoui said cost is a limiting factor to accessing therapy, which is currently restricted to patients with advanced liver disease.

Raising Awareness

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day. The World Health Organization (WHO) hopes to increase awareness and understanding of viral hepatitis, the diseases that it causes, and symptoms such as loss of appetite, fatigue, mild fever, muscle or joint aches, nausea and vomiting, and belly pain.

“In my role as a gastroenterologist who treats patients with hepatitis, I am trying aggressively to educate the public and other physicians about hepatitis C because we are seeing the end results now of patients coming to the hospital with cirrhosis and cancer of the liver. And projections tell us it’s only going to get worse between now and 2030,” Dr. Ghaoui said.

Hepatitis, which means inflammation of the liver, is caused by infection of one of five viruses – Hepatitis A, B, C, D or E. All hepatitis viruses can cause inflammation of the liver, and chronic hepatitis B and C can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Every year, some 15,000 Americans die from liver cancer or chronic liver disease associated with viral hepatitis. Hepatitis A, B and C are the most common types of viral hepatitis in the United States.

Hepatitis A, the most common, is spread through food or water contamination by feces from a person who has the virus. Hepatitis B, the next most common type, is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, semen or other body fluid. Hepatitis C and D are spread through contact with an infected person’s blood. Hepatitis E spreads the same way as hepatitis A does.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated a rise in new hepatitis C infections nationally over the past four years – that’s a 150 percent increase. Prior to today, most people were infected by blood transfusions or organ donations pre-1992, before donations began to be screened for the hepatitis C antibody. Now, most infections are the result of shared needles among drug users. In fact, the CDC has warned that the epidemic of opioid abuse could lead to severe outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis C nationally.

Protection Tips

What can you do to protect yourself and others from the hepatitis virus?

  • Take action – Get vaccinated. Hepatitis B is vaccine preventable, as is hepatitis A. A vaccine for hepatitis A first became available in 1995, and hepatitis A rates in the U.S. have declined by 89% since then. The CDC recommends vaccination for children ages 12- to 23-months old, as well as for adults at high risk for infection. There is also a vaccine for hepatitis B which is nearly 100% effective in preventing the infection. All infants and unvaccinated children, adolescents and at-risk adults should get the hepatitis B vaccine.
  • Get tested – Testing is quick, simple and painless through a blood test. Because baby boomers have the highest rates of hepatitis C, the CDC began recommending in 2012 that especially those born between 1945 and 1965 get a one-time screening.
  • Get treated – While hepatitis B cannot be cured, it can be treated. There are also new hepatitis C treatments which can cure some 90-95 percent of patients.