TORONTO — July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, one of only four disease-specific world health days recognized by the World Health Organization. The theme for 2015 is “Prevent hepatitis. Act now.” and is focused on preventing hepatitis B and C. The key messages of the day are knowledge, vaccination, testing and seeking treatment, and the demand for safe injection sites.
Hepatitis affects millions of people annually, and causes nearly 1.5 million deaths globally every year. The virus can be transmitted through unprotected sex, dirty needles and syringes used for illegal drugs, but also from a contaminated ice cube or food.
Six hepatitis viruses have been identified, but the three known as A, B, and C cause about 90 per cent of acute hepatitis cases in Canada.
According to Health Canada, “people infected with hepatitis can experience effects ranging from mild illness to serious liver damage. Many recover completely from an infection, while others become carriers of the disease and can spread it to others unknowingly.”
Hepatitis A is transmitted through eating or drinking something contaminated with the virus. It has a vaccine, and can be prevented by vigilant hand washing. People should avoid any food that seems suspect, including raw or undercooked food.
Water tainted by animal or human waste can cause the hepatitis A virus (HAV), as can food handled by someone who has not properly washed their hands.
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the most prevalent strain. It is transmitted via blood or bodily fluids, often through sexual contact. Safe sex practices can prevent the spread of HBV, and there is a vaccine.
People can recover from an HBV infection and develop a life-long immunity to the virus. However “about 90 per cent of babies born to mothers who are hepatitis B carriers have a high chance of developing chronic HBV in later life, which can lead to diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.”
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) has no vaccine, and it’s estimated 30 to 35 per cent of people infected don’t know they have the virus. Injection drug use is associated with more than half of infections, but HCV can also be transmitted through needles used for tattooing and body piercing. The bloodborne virus can also be transmitted due to inadequately sterilized medical equipment and via unscreened blood and blood products.
“Up to 90 per cent of infected persons carry HCV indefinitely. Over the long term, they are at risk of such illnesses as profound fatigue, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.”
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Canadians have HCV. Prevention measures include using condoms during intercourse, and not sharing syringes and needles.
“Hepatitis C is not spread through breast milk, food or water or by casual contact such as hugging, kissing and sharing food or drinks with an infected person,” according to the WHO.
Watch for these typical symptoms of acute hepatitis:
- Appetite loss
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellowish colour on the skin and eyeballs)