Hepatitis – who’s at risk; medical mystery; news from the world of medicine
What you need to know about this medical condition
Know your ABCs: viral hepatitis – inflammation of the liver – is classified with different letters, depending on which virus is to blame. All varieties are contagious and may cause fatigue, nausea, fever, stomach pain, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Some chronic forms can lead to permanent scarring of the liver, liver cancer or the need for a transplant.
■ Thankfully, the overall chances of contracting hepatitis are fairly low. Hep A (transferred mainly by food or water contaminated with faeces) comes and goes in small outbreaks, while D (a complication of hep B) and E (commonly spread by dirty water) are uncommon in developed countries. Ultimately, most of the hepatitis burden comes down to B and C. In Australia, around one per cent of the population has hep B,
while at least 226,700 people currently live with hepatitis C. (In NZ, those figures are 100,000 with hep B, and at least 50,000 with hepatitis C.)
■ Hep B is found in blood, semen and vaginal fluids, so your risk is above average if you’ve had unprotected sex with multiple partners, if you’ve ever injected drugs or if you’ve shared toothbrushes, razors or nail clippers with an infected person.
■ If you contract hep B as an adult, there’s a 95 per cent chance your immune system will defeat it without medical treatment. However, children – most often infected during childbirth – typically become lifelong carriers. This strain doesn’t necessarily show symptoms until it leads to complications, which are a risk for a quarter of chronic carriers. Therefore, most national health authorities suggest that children be vaccinated, along with at-risk adults who missed out in childhood.
■ Meanwhile, hep C is mainly spread by blood. Your risk is higher if you’ve used intravenous drugs, shared personal hygiene items or received a blood transfusion before the 1990s, when screening technology became available. There isn’t yet a vaccine for hep C, and often symptoms won’t appear until severe liver damage is present. Your chance of recovering from the disease without treatment is only one in four, but there are new medications that will cure it 90–97 per cent of the time, says Dr Helena Cortez-Pinto, a liver expert.
“The World Health Organization is aiming to eliminate hepatitis B and C as public-health threats by 2030,” says Cortez-Pinto. With the help of vaccines, treatments and risk awareness, it’s a realistic goal.