Hepatitis: what you should know about the ABCs

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Hepatitis has a staggering toll on the health of people around the world, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is largely unknown, untreated, and undiagnosed. It is also 100% preventable. July 28 is this year’s World Hepatitis Day. The theme of the event is this is hepatitis. Know it. Confront it. No time is too early to start talking about it.

Hepatitis just means inflammation of the liver, in fancy-pants medical terminology; the ‘hepa’ part of the word means liver (it comes from the Greek root hepar), and ‘itis’ means inflamed. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including viruses, such as hepatitis A, B, and C.

Who cares!?
There are about 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A in the world, every year—that’s more than the entire population of Calgary. An estimated 500 million people are living with chronic hepatitis B or C worldwide. Even more shocking is the World Health Organization’s estimate that 2 billion people globally have ever been infected with hepatitis B. These viruses cause acute and chronic liver disease, and can lead to liver scarring, cancers, or even death.

What does my liver do anyhow?
The liver is the largest organ in the human body, and can weigh up to four pounds. That’s like four blocks of butter hanging out in the lower right part of your ribcage! The liver is like the factory of the body—it filters the blood, breaks down toxins (including alcohol), helps break down the food that you eat, and takes the nutrients from digestion and packages it into forms that can be used or stored for later. Scientists say that the liver performs over 500 individual functions, and you can’t live without it.

Okay, so how can I get viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis A is transmitted by fecal-oral routes—this just means that you have to eat or drink something that has been contaminated. It’s a gross thought—who wants to eat poop, right?—but it can be as simple as having somebody make your burger who hasn’t properly washed their hands after going to the bathroom. The virus can cause mild to severe illness, and can also cause liver failure. The good news is there’s a vaccine! Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated, if you haven’t already gotten it. Although hepatitis A can make you sick, and it affects an estimated 1.4 million people a year, it doesn’t cause chronic liver disease like B and C.

Hepatitis B and C are both transmitted blood-to-blood. So in order for you to get it, somebody’s blood containing hepatitis B or C has to get into your bloodstream. Some of the most obvious ways are through sharing needles or having unprotected sex. It can also be transmitted through sharing personal hygiene items such as razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers. A relaxing day at the spa can be riskier than we think: manicures and pedicures done with improperly sterilized equipment are high risk for transmission. Hepatitis B and C can cause chronic liver disease, and the liver just can’t do its job—this can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancers: this can be fatal. So the good part is that there’s a vaccine for hepatitis B. Unfortunately, hepatitis C doesn’t have a vaccine yet—but it is treatable!

So the toilet seat’s safe, right?
It sure is! You cannot get viral hepatitis from a public toilet seat. Neither can you get it from hugging, kissing, tears, sweat, or sharing a drinking glass, or eating off the same plate as an infected person. Getting a blood transfusion in Canada isn’t a high risk, as Canadian Blood Services began screening blood for viruses in 1989.

How do I know that I have it?
You need a blood test. You can’t tell if somebody has hepatitis just by looking at them. Some people can have hepatitis C for decades before their liver gets damaged enough to stop working properly. Talk to your doctor and get a blood test. 

Well, I’m vaccinated, and can’t possibly have hepatitis C!
Think so, eh? It might be true—but there are lots of people who get infected with hepatitis C and have NO IDEA about how they got it. You don’t need to be young to get it: in fact, the highest risk group in Canada for hepatitis C infection is the baby boomers! If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you’re much more likely to be infected than any other demographic in the country. Check out this short video from the Canadian Liver Foundation for an illustration for at-risk demographics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ap0GPgHT5jo

How to prevent and treat it

Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, and do things that help protect yourself from hepatitis C. Avoid unprotected sex or sharing needles, and try to avoid sharing personal hygiene supplies like toothbrushes and razors. Get tested! If you do have hepatitis A, B, or C, they’re treatable. Talk to your doctor. Treatment can be a long process, but it’s worth it for a healthy liver!

 

Sources

Canadian Liver Foundation. (2012). How the liver works. Retrieved from http://www.liver.ca/liver-health/how-liver-works.aspx

Public Health Agency of Canada.  http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hepc/index-eng.php

World Hepatitis Appliance. World Hepatitis Day 2013. Retrieved from http://www.worldhepatitisalliance.org/WorldHepatitisDay/WHD2013.aspx

World Health Organization. Global Alert and Response (GAR): World Hepatitis Day 2012.  Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs164/en/

World Health Organization. (2012). Media centre: Hepatitis C Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs164/en/

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