Hepatitis awareness

Dr Thapelo Motshudi
1 August 2023
5 min read

World Hepatitis Day, observed annually on July 28th, is a global initiative aimed at raising awareness about viral hepatitis and its profound impact on people worldwide. The day serves as a platform to educate individuals, communities, and governments, encouraging preventive measures and providing support to those affected by the disease. By shining a spotlight on this silent epidemic that affects millions, it strives towards its eventual elimination.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver cells, which leads to loss of their normal function or complete failure. It can be caused by many conditions, but the most common are viruses, called Hepatitis A, B, C, D & E. Other causes include alcohol, drugs, and cancer. There is also what is called autoimmune hepatitis, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks normal liver cells.

How are these viruses transmitted?

It depends on the type. Hepatitis A and E are caused by consumption of contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B, C and D are obtained from contact with infected body fluids and receipt of contaminated blood. Hepatitis B can be transmitted from mother to child at birth or by sexual contact.  

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can vary from person to person, and they depend on the type of hepatitis one has and its severity. Most commonly patients will develop fatigue, jaundice, very dark urine, cirrhosis, liver failure, and finally liver cancer. Jaundice is when the skin and eyes turn yellow. Some people are just carriers of the hepatitis-causing viruses, so they can pass them on to others but do not get sick themselves.

How is it diagnosed?

There are characteristics symptoms that patients with hepatitis typically present with. Once the diagnosis is suspected blood liver function tests are performed, and this is often accompanied by examination of the abdomen using ultrasound or other techniques. Imaging of the abdomen helps to look for complications of hepatitis as well. Ultimately a biopsy of the liver is performed.

Can I donate blood if I have hepatitis B?

No you cannot, because the virus is transmitted through blood.

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on the cause and the presence or absence of complications. End-stage liver failure can be managed with a liver transplant. If the cause is alcohol then one has to stop drinking.

How is it prevented?

Good sanitation and personal hygiene help with preventing hepatitis A. Safe sex and not sharing needlea help prevent hepatitis B. There is a very effective vaccine for hepatitis B, with a booster recommended every 5-10 years. There is no vaccine available for hepatitis C. Infection with type D is only possible in the presence of type B, so vaccinating against type B is effective for both. Excessive and prolonged alcohol intake is a huge risk factor, so moderate intake or abstinence are encouraged. Patients need to be informed of medications with the potential to cause hepatitis, and employers have to introduce occupational health measures to limit or remove exposure to liver toxic substances in the work place.

Is the hepatitis vaccine safe?

Yes it is very safe and effective. It is part of the routine immunisation schedule for children, given at 6, 10 and 14 weeks. Adults who work in environments with increased risk of exposure to hepatitis B are usually advised or compelled to take the vaccine, including periodic booster shots.

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