This article was written by Dr Alice Lee , Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, Concord Repatriation General Hospital.
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, marking a day where community organisations, clinicians, researchers, and governments raise awareness to the global burden of viral hepatitis. This year theme is “finding the missing millions” – in recognition of the many people around the world unaware they are living with hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C.
Did you know the date of World Hepatitis Day is also the birthday of Nobel prize winner Dr Baruch Blumberg? He who not only discovered the hepatitis B virus, but also developed a diagnostic test and vaccine for the virus.
Here are ten more facts about hepatitis…
There are 5 viruses that predominantly affect the liver…hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E.
They are all different viruses and are transmitted through different pathways. Hepatitis A and E are mostly spread through faecal-oral route and are preventable by hand hygiene and careful food preparation. Hepatitis A is more common in Korean communities and is also vaccine preventable. Hepatitis B is spread through blood and body fluids, hepatitis C through blood to blood contact. Hepatitis D only occurs in people infected with hepatitis B and is uncommon in Korean patients.
There are over 300 million people in the world that live with viral hepatitis.
Less than 20% of the people with virus are aware that they have the infection. The prevalence rates of hepatitis vary throughout the world, some areas have high rates of hepatitis B of over 10%. Higher rates of hepatitis B are seen in older Koreans born before vaccination programs were available.
More than 1.5 million people die each year from viral hepatitis.
Many people are unaware of their diagnosis until the very late stages of disease and are often too late to be saved. Causes of death include acute liver failure, but the most common cause of death is liver cancer. Described as a ‘silent killer’, those unaware of their status may only have symptoms when the disease is very advanced and when options of treatment are very limited. It’s important to know your status!
Prevention of hepatitis remains central in eliminating viral hepatitis
Vaccines are available for both hepatitis B and for hepatitis A. Hepatitis B vaccine is now a part of Australia’s childhood vaccination schedule, starting at birth. It is safe for people of any age to have, even when pregnant. All people should be vaccinated. Know your status and get vaccinated if you are not protected. Those who are family members or partners of positive patients can access free vaccines through NSW health. Ask your doctor.
Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are transmitted through blood
Avoid sharing IV needles/syringes, razor blades and toothbrushes. It is safe to share meals, hug your family and friends. Stigma and discrimination is not acceptable. Talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns.
Hepatitis B, C, and D can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Many people can continue to have a healthy and normal life without realising their liver is being damaged. It is essential that, if you are at risk, you see your doctor regularly and get checkups. Taking care of yourself is also very important, in addition to getting vaccinated, avoid excess alcohol and do not smoke, take care not to take medications that can cause liver injury. Focus on a healthy diet, exercise and stay lean.
Hepatitis B can be treated.
Treatment, for those who require it, is available in the form of an oral tablet. If you are living with hepatitis B, your doctor will assess whether you need treatment based on blood tests, your history and other test results. Even if you do not need treatment, you may need treatment later. Lifelong checkups are needed.
Hepatitis C can be cured.
People with hepatitis C virus – confirmed with a PCR test – are eligible for treatment in Australia. Tablets are taken for 8 or 12 weeks and the treatment cures more than 95% of cases. Ask your doctor about this!!
Beware immune suppression
If you have a medical condition that requires immune suppression, you may be at risk of hepatitis B reactivation (meaning an increase in virus activity in the liver). Know your status and ask your doctor.
People with viral hepatitis can be at increased risk of liver cancer.
Screening can lead to early detection and curative treatment. Liver cancer is the most common cause of death in patients with hepatitis B. It is asymptomatic and the only way to diagnose it early is by screening. If you have hepatitis B, you may need screening. This is simple, using an ultrasound on a six-monthly basis. It could save your life. High risk groups include older people, those with advanced disease (cirrhosis) and a family history of liver cancer. Treatment is available.
You or someone close to you, loved ones can be impacted by hepatitis. Celebrate World Hepatitis Day as a hepatitis community to increase awareness, talk about hepatitis and address the ongoing challenges of increasing prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
You, or someone you know could be one of the “missing millions” … you can play a part in “finding” them. You could save a life – yours, or someone you love.