Sunday, July 28 was World Hepatitis Day – a day organized by the World Hepatitis Alliance to increase awareness of these infections that affect the global population. According to the World Hepatitis Alliance, about 500 million people are living with hepatitis B and C. In the United States alone, the CDC estimates that 4.4 million people are living with chronic hepatitis infections.
The World Hepatitis Alliance has been organizing this day of observance since 2008. In 2010, the World Health Assembly adopted resolution WHA63.18, which formally recognized hepatitis as a “global public health problem.”
So, here’s a little background information on hepatitis in light of World Hepatitis Day.
Hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver,” but it also refers to infections with the hepatitis viruses that affect the liver. There are five hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D, and E. Hepatitis A and E (HAV and HEV) are food and waterborne pathogens, meaning people become infected through ingesting contaminated food and water. Hepatitis B and C (HBV, HCV) are transmitted by bodily fluids, namely blood or semen. Hepatitis D, like B and C, is transmitted by blood, but is uncommon in the United States. Hepatitis A and E are acute infections, so, they will occur suddenly and symptoms typically do not last long. The B and C viruses may cause acute infections, however, acute HBV infections often lead to chronic illness and HCV infections often remain “silent,” or fail to show symptoms, and eventually become chronic infections. Chronic HBV and HCV increase risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death.
Symptoms of the different viruses include: fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, dark urine, joint pain, and jaundice. The treatment regimen for hepatitis depends on the virus type. There is a vaccine for HAV and HBV. There are no specific treatments for hepatitis A – the CDC recommends rest, good nutrition practices and avoidance of alcohol. Acute HBV infections lack specific treatments as well, though chronic infections, according to the WHO, are typically treated with antivirals or interferon. However, the WHO notes, this treatment regimen is not universally accessible, particularly in resource-limited areas.
Hepatitis C is tricky because there are different types of hepatitis C, and they do not always require medical treatment. If the virus does require medical treatment, it is usually treated with a combination of antivirals. The problem here is that, like with hepatitis B treatment, the drugs are not easily accessed.
Hepatitis D, or hepatitis deltavirus, was not discovered until 1980 and is structurally quite different from the other hepatitis viruses. The virus requires presence of hepatitis B’s genetic material to replicate in humans. So, the best way to prevent HDV infections is to prevent HBV infections, which is through vaccination. There is no specific treatment for hepatitis D.
One of the viruses that often overshadows hepatitis is HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. Yet, these two infections share a strong link: per the CDC, people with HIV often suffer co-infection with hepatitis. This is a pretty serious problem as, again reported by the CDC, simultaneous infections of HIV and hepatitis C triples the risk of liver failure and liver-related death.
Despite the lack of fanfare around these infections, hepatitis is a significant threat. For more information on hepatitis and World Hepatitis Day, check out the visit the CDC’s hepatitis pages or the World Hepatitis Alliance website. For something a little more light-hearted, check out this dancing liver for HCV awareness. Everyone loves a good flash mob.