Hep­ati­tis – who’s at risk; med­i­cal mys­tery; news from the world of medicine

What you need to know about this med­i­cal con­di­tion

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - BY SAMANTHA RIDE­OUT

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.

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