There are many forms of hepatitis. Hepatitis A, B and C are each caused by a different virus. Each has unique qualities, but all can infect and damage the liver.
Hepatitis A is a transmitted by ingesting feces infected with the virus. This most often happens when drinking water or eating food in developing countries where the water supply is contaminated because of poor sanitation. Hep A is very common world wide, in developing countries the majority of people will be infected at some point in childhood. Hep A infection only lasts a few months, and causes flu like symptoms that can be severe. Fortunately, once the virus clears, immunity develops – you can’t get it twice. And better yet, there is a vaccine to completely prevent Hep A. One dose provides partial immunity and two doses usually provides full immunity.
Hepatitis B is a blood-borne and sexually transmitted virus. It can be transmitted through sex, poor infection control in health care, and injection drug use. Most adults with a healthy immune system fight off Hep B during the first few months after infection, and then clear the virus and become immune for life. The most common reason people have chronic Hep B, is because they got it from their mother at the time of birth when their immune system was undeveloped, and could not fight off the virus. Mother to child transmission can be prevented through precautions before, during and after the birth of the child, particularly by ensuring the baby gets the hepatitis B vaccine birth dose followed by the full vaccine series. If the virus does not clear, chronic infection can develop which can lead to serious liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer. The great news is that there is also a vaccine to prevent Hep B, provided in three doses. There is also medical treatment for chronic Hep B to keep the virus under control and prevent liver damage.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood. It's most often transmitted through sharing or reusing injection equipment, and poor infection control in health care. There is no vaccine for Hep C, and no immunity - the only prevention is avoiding contact with blood. Hep C most often becomes a chronic infection, which can lead to serious liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer. The great news, is that that Hep C can now be treated and cured in just a few weeks with antiviral medication.
It is possible to get one or more of these viruses – at different points in life or even all at the same time.
Most important points to remember are:
- Hep A and Hep B can be prevented through vaccine.
- Hep C can be prevented through careful infection control, and can be cured.
Be Hep Free!
Nirah is a clinical social worker and public health professional who has been raising awareness about hepatitis C and liver health in NYC since 2007. She organizes the Hep Free NYC network in NYC. @HepFreeNYC