Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Hepatitis can’t wait: Get vaccinated today

Published:Wednesday | July 28, 2021 | 12:06 AMKeisha Hill/Senior Gleaner Writer

WORLD HEPATITIS Day (WHD) takes places every year on July 28, bringing the world together under a single theme to raise awareness of viral hepatitis and to influence real change.

The day is being held under the theme: ‘Hepatitis Can’t Wait’.

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. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis.

However, hepatitis is often caused by a virus. The most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). HAV is found in the stool and blood of people who are infected. Hepatitis A is very contagious. It is spread when someone unknowingly ingests the virus even in microscopic amounts through close personal contact with an infected person or through eating contaminated food or drink.

Symptoms of hepatitis A can last up to two months and include fatigue, nausea, stomach pain, and jaundice. Most people with hepatitis A do not have long-lasting illness.

Hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluids from a person infected with the virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact; sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment; or from mother to baby at birth.

Not all people newly infected with HBV have symptoms, but for those that do, symptoms can include fatigue, poor appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice. For many people, hepatitis B is a short-term illness. For others, it can become a long-term, chronic infection that can lead to serious, even life-threatening health issues like cirrhosis or liver cancer. Risk for chronic infection is related to age at infection.

About 90 per cent of infants with hepatitis B go on to develop chronic infection, whereas only two per cent to six per cent of people who get hepatitis B as adults become chronically infected.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.

For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness, but for more than half of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C can result in serious, even life-threatening health problems like cirrhosis and liver cancer.

NO VACCINE

People with chronic hepatitis C can often have no symptoms and do not feel sick. When symptoms appear, they often are a sign of advanced liver disease. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviours that can spread the disease, especially injecting drugs.

Dr Mike Mills, president of the Association of Consultant Physicians of Jamaica and governor of the West Indies Chapter of American College of Gastroenterology, said steps can be taken to prevent the development of hepatitis if persons understand the factors responsible and how it can be acquired.

“Hepatitis is preventable in most cases. The earlier it is identified and treated is also the better the outcome and the lesser the chance of progression towards cirrhosis, which is scarring and is not reversible. The important viruses are hepatitis B and C as these cause chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. The importance of hepatitis B and C lies in their modes of transmission,” Mills said.

Not all individuals, he said, are symptomatic. “You can be born with the virus and not present with symptoms or signs until many years later. Even adults may not have symptoms. Those who do present with jaundice or yellowing of the eyes as the most common symptom. Depending on the severity, you can have fever, abdominal pain and nausea. Dark orange urine may also occur,” Mills said.

These symptoms, he said, may go away without any treatment but it does not mean the virus is gone from the body. “It may continue to do damage to the liver without you knowing until symptoms of cirrhosis show up years later. These later signs include jaundice, swelling of the feet and abdomen and vomiting of blood from veins in the oesophagus called varices. You can also develop liver failure, liver cancer and it may be fatal,” Mills said.

Hepatitis B is best prevented by getting vaccinated against it. The Ministry of Health and Wellness has included vaccination against hepatitis B as part of its childhood vaccinations, and this recommendation means most individuals born in the 1990s and later would be covered from childhood.

“Those born before this roll-out would not be protected unless they work in certain high-risk areas such as healthcare or in the prison system, where it is mandatory. Hepatitis B can also be prevented at the time of birth if the mother knows she is infected and the baby is given a vaccine and immunoglobulin on the day of delivery.”

Prevention is also possible if you are somehow exposed to an infected person’s blood or fluids by getting immunoglobulin injection. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Antiviral medications are now very good at curing hepatitis C completely.

“There are also antiviral medications for hepatitis B but they are not as effective as a full cure as yet. They are essential in preventing cirrhosis, liver cancer and death and can be accessed locally. It is very important that treatment is offered to all patients. Hepatitis A does not cause cirrhosis or need specific treatment. It usually goes away on its own,” Mills said.

keisha.hill@gleanerjm.com