Since 2010, the World Health Organization has designated a day in July as World Hepatitis Day. That day is July 28 and the theme for the day is “Eliminate Hepatitis Day.” It is a day to raise awareness of the 400 million people infected with hepatitis B or C around the world. Every year, 1.4 million people die from viral hepatitis worldwide. Last year, the World Health Organization made it a goal to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. The website for this new initiative is www.nohep.org. I’d like to review information about the different types of hepatitis so we are all more informed.
There are multiple types of hepatitis infection that patients may develop named by letters, A through E. For this article, we’ll focus on the most serious types, hepatitis B and C. Both are viral infections that are passed through blood and body fluids, but there are some significant differences.
There is a vaccination for this type of hepatitis and children are now vaccinated against hepatitis B. Adults who weren’t vaccinated as children can be vaccinated with a series of 3 injections. At this time, those at highest risk are encouraged to be vaccinated. Healthcare workers, close contacts of people infected with hepatitis B, travelers to high risk areas, IV drug users and prison populations are at highest risk.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for hepatitis B in people at high risk of infection: IV drug users, people living with or having sex with people infected with hepatitis B, and men who have sex with men. Infection risk is much higher in these groups and early identification can make an impact on long-term survival.
Most concerning, in the population we serve, is hepatitis C. Hepatitis C was discovered after hepatitis B and screening began much later. At this time, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The current recommendation is that people born between 1945 and 1965 should be screened for hepatitis C. Like B, it is transmitted by blood and body fluids. Often in my career, I’ve diagnosed hepatitis C in patients who have no risk factors for the disease. We never know how they contracted the disease.
In the past, treatment of hepatitis C was difficult and expensive. The medications caused significant side effects and weren’t options for many patients. Now, there is treatment that is 90-95% effective depending on the type of hepatitis C a patient is carrying. Currently, I have a few patients who have been successfully treated for hepatitis C. They view it as lifesaving and life changing. It is important to know that not all patients infected with hepatitis C continue to carry the virus or even have effects from the disease. That said, the risk is high enough that screening is recommended and further evaluation should be done to completely define a patient’s risk.
The take home message for this month is to avoid activities that put you at risk for getting viral hepatitis don’t just think World Hepatitis Day on July 28th. If you can’t, or participated in activities that put you at risk, get checked. Your primary care physician should be able to discuss the screening and the meaning of the results.
Michael Dominguez, MD, FAAFP is board certified in Family Medicine. His office is located at HealthTexas Medical Group, 590 N. General McMullen, 78228, phone: 210-249-0212.