While not all types of hepatitis are easily preventable, awareness of this group of health conditions affecting the liver can help people to seek the medical care they need and take precautions to prevent infection as far as possible.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent global report on hepatitis, viral forms of this disease claimed 1.34 million lives worldwide in 2015– a death toll it claims is comparable with those of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis (TB). The WHO has been leading a campaign to eradicate viral hepatitis by 2030.
Unfortunately, hepatitis remains a global health challenge, with hepatitis A, B and C viruses being the most commonly occurring in South Africa. Some types of hepatitis can progress to cause permanent scarring of the liver, or chronic liver failure, commonly known as cirrhosis, which can increase the risk of developing some types of liver cancer. Most people who develop liver damage to this extent require a liver transplant in order to survive.
Viral forms of hepatitis sometimes begin with symptoms similar to flu, loss of appetite and abdominal tenderness. The whites of the eyes and the skin (particularly the soles of the feet and palms of the hands) may develop a yellowish colour, and the urine may be darker than usual and stools may be a pale colour, indicating yellow-jaundice.
Hepatitis A virus
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is spread when a person eats food or drinks water contaminated with infected animal or human faeces, or comes into physical contact with a person who is infected. When HAV outbreaks occur, the virus can spread quickly, although most people make a full recovery within a month or two, and do not suffer lasting liver damage. In some cases, however, HAV can be life threatening.
HAV can usually be prevented through:
- Ensuring drinking water has been adequately purified
- Washing hands thoroughly before eating or touching the mouth
- Ensuring proper food hygiene.
An HAV vaccination is available and has helped to significantly reduce infections.
Hepatitis B virus
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the most common viral illnesses in the world as it is highly infectious. The virus is found in the bodily fluids of infected people and can be spread through sexual contact, exposure to blood, sweat, tears and breast milk. It can also be spread from mother to child during birth. Hepatitis B can be spread through use of injection needles or tattooing equipment that has not been properly sterilised, for example.
Most people with acute HBV do not develop long-term liver damage. However, if the virus becomes chronic, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine to help prevent further damage to the liver.
Fortunately, a vaccine that can prevent HBV infection is widely available and should form part of childhood vaccination programmes. However, if you were not vaccinated against HBV or did not vaccinate your children against HBV, it is important to visit your general practitioner for advice.
Hepatitis C virus
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is spread through contact with infected blood. This can happen if a person touches the blood of someone who has the virus, or through using contaminated injection needles or other non-sterile medical equipment.
No vaccination against HCV exists yet, although there are on going efforts to develop one. HVC is one of the more dangerous forms of hepatitis because, according to WHO, in 55% to 85% of patients the condition progresses to chronic HVC, meaning that they have a significant risk of developing cirrhosis (malfunction of the liver due to long-term damage).
Toxic hepatitis is most commonly caused by alcohol abuse, but can also be caused by certain chemicals, drugs or certain nutritional supplements. Be sure to consult your doctor about proper use of prescribed medicines and over-the-counter medicines because these can cause liver damage if not taken appropriately. The damage to the liver may not immediately show symptoms, but could eventually result in complete liver failure.
Certain types of hepatitis can progress quickly and may result in serious irreparable liver damage or liver failure. This is why it is important to be aware of the symptoms that may accompany hepatitis and seek medical attention as soon as possible.