By Kathy Hubbard
Tomorrow is World Hepatitis Day. Honoring the birthday of Dr. Baruch “Barry” Blumberg (1925-2011), the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated July 28 to raise awareness about viral hepatitis.
Why Dr. Blumberg? “Dr. Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967, and two years later, he developed the first hepatitis B vaccine. These achievements culminated in Dr. Blumberg winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976,” the CDC says.
Over 354 million people worldwide are affected by viral hepatitis. The WHO and CDC chose this day to educate people about the burden of these infections and the actions people can take to avoid them. So today, I’ll do my part.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Dr. Blumberg discovered hepatitis B, who found hepatitis A? The National Institutes of Health says that disease outbreaks resembling what today we call hepatitis A have been around “since antiquity.”
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. “The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected,” the CDC explains.
“Many people with hepatitis do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected,” CDC says. “If symptoms occur with an acute infection, they can appear anytime from two weeks to six months after exposure.
“Symptoms of chronic viral hepatitis can take decades to develop. Symptoms of hepatitis can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored stools, joint pain, and jaundice.”
How serious is it? Infected people can develop chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
The New York State Department of Health’s website says that there are at least six types of hepatitis (A-G), the three most common viruses being hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
“Hepatitis A is an acute infection, and people usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can cause a chronic, persistent infection, which can lead to chronic liver disease. There is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for hepatitis C,” they say.
“Hepatitis A virus can easily spread from one person to another by putting something in the mouth (even though it may look clean) that has been contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A. For example, this can happen when people do not wash their hands after using the toilet and then touch or prepare other people’s food.
“Hepatitis B virus is found in blood and certain body fluids. It’s spread when a person who is not immune comes in contact with blood or body fluid from an infected person. Hepatitis B is spread by having sex with an infected person without a condom, sharing needles or ‘works’ when ‘shooting’ drugs, needlesticks, or sharps exposures in a healthcare setting, or from an infected mother to her baby during vaginal birth. Exposure to blood in any situation can be a risk for transmission.”
NYDOH says that the hepatitis C virus is also found in blood and certain body fluids and that its transmission is pretty much the same as that of hepatitis B, except that it’s rarely transmitted through sexual intercourse.
The CDC recommends that all children aged 12 to 23 months be vaccinated against hepatitis A and children 2 to 18 should receive a “catch up” vaccination if they didn’t receive one earlier. Adults should be vaccinated if they’re at risk, including international travelers, men who have sex with men, injected drug users, people with occupational risks for exposure, pregnant women, and people with chronic liver disease.
Infants and children under 19 who have not been vaccinated for hepatitis B should get immunized. Additionally, people who are sexually active who are not in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship or people whose sex partners have hepatitis B; people at risk for infection by exposure to blood; hemodialysis patients; people aged 19-59 with diabetes, and international travelers to countries where hepatitis B is common should be vaccinated.
The risk list is longer than I have room for, so you may want to chat with your primary care provider about your personal risk and whether you should consider getting tested for or vaccinated against hepatitis.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was written for and published in the Bonner County Daily Bee on July 27, 2022.