Hepatitis: An Overview

Worldwide, 400 million people are living with Hepatitis B or C. That’s 400 million too many. Every year 1.4 million people die from viral hepatitis and yet all of these deaths could be prevented. July 28th is recognised across the globe as World Hepatitis Day (WHD).

With better awareness and understanding of how we can prevent hepatitis we can potentially eliminate this disease and save more than 3,800 lives a day. That’s why in 2010 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared World Hepatitis Day. Millions of people across the world now take part in World Hepatitis Day to raise awareness about viral hepatitis and to call for access to treatment, better prevention programs and government action.

The date of 28 July was chosen for World Hepatitis Day in honour of the birthday of Nobel Laureate Professor Baruch Samuel Blumberg, discoverer of the hepatitis B virus and developer of the first hepatitis B vaccine.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) viral hepatitis is the seventh leading cause of death globally, accounting for 1.4 million deaths per year – more than HIV/AIDS, or tuberculosis (TB) or malaria. In Australia, the news is not good – 1,000 lives are lost each year due to hepatitis-related liver disease and nearly 3,000 Australians with hepatitis C have progressed to severe liver disease in the last year.

Bear in mind that hepatitis B and C are preventable, treatable liver health conditions. This is why awareness is so vital through events such as World Hepatitis Day.

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What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. Here’s a quick summary:

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A occurs worldwide but is more common in regions with poor sanitation and a lack of safe food and water. High-risk hot spots include Africa, Asia and Central and South America.

Hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis B & C also occur globally but are viral diseases contracted through exposure to blood or bodily fluids. High-risk activities include unprotected sex, having tattoos, piercings (particularly on holiday where you are unfamiliar with health standards of the ‘ink artist’), injecting drug use, working in a health care facility or delivering first aid.

Sharing needles is one hazard that immediately comes to mind because 2 million people a year contract hepatitis from unsafe injections worldwide. Sterile, single-use syringes can prevent this. Sharing drug-injection equipment can also result in a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) co-infection. The level of HIV/AIDS infections is very high in many countries, particularly in the African and South-east Asia regions. HIV-positive persons who become infected with hepatitis B or C are at increased risk of developing chronic hepatitis. In addition, those who are co-infected with HIV and hepatitis can have serious medical complications, including an increased risk for liver-related morbidity and mortality.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D is a type that is also generally contracted via contact with bodily fluid but is only found in people who also have hepatitis B. It is the least common form of viral hepatitis – certainly in Australia – although worldwide it is estimated that 15 million people with hepatitis B are infected with hepatitis D.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is similar to hepatitis A in that it is transmitted via poor sanitation and can be spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. The highest rates of hepatitis E infection occur in regions where there is poor sanitation and sewage management. Hepatitis E causes an acute (short-term) illness but does not cause a chronic (life-long) infection.

You can find out more about each form of hepatitis on the Hepatitis Australia website.

Prevent Hepatitis
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You only have one liver: look after it

Many illnesses and conditions can cause inflammation of the liver, for example, drugs, alcohol, chemicals, and autoimmune diseases. Many viruses can also inflame the liver. Most viruses, however, do not primarily attack the liver; the liver is just one of several organs that the viruses affect.

Hepatitis viruses multiply primarily in the liver cells. This can cause the liver to be unable to perform its functions. Here is a list of the major functions of the liver:

  • The liver helps purify the blood by changing harmful chemicals into harmless ones. The source of these chemicals can be external, such as medications or alcohol, or internal, such as ammonia or bilirubin. Typically, these harmful chemicals are broken down into smaller chemicals or attached to other chemicals that are then eliminated from the body.
  • The liver produces many important substances, especially proteins that are necessary for good health. For example, it produces albumin, the protein building-block of the body, as well as the proteins that cause blood to clot properly.
  • The liver stores many sugars,fats and vitamins until they are needed elsewhere in the body.
  • The liver builds smaller chemicals into larger, more complicated chemicals that are needed elsewhere in the body. Examples of this type of function are the manufacture of a fat,cholesterol, and the protein bilirubin.

When the liver is inflamed, it does not perform these functions well, which brings about many of the symptoms, signs, and problems associated with any type of hepatitis (A-F).

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Hepatitis symptoms and treatment options

Hepatitis symptoms can be mysterious in that the disease doesn’t show any symptoms in some cases, leaving the affected person unaware of the risk of developing serious liver disease including liver cancer, liver cirrhosis and liver failure.

There are safe and effective vaccines available to protect children from hepatitis B for life (on a global scale, the WHO reports that 780,000 children are dying each year from hepatitis B infection). There are also effective medicines to treat hepatitis B and cure hepatitis C.

Hepatitis know the facts
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The first step should be to your local doctor for a liver check-up and talk to your doctor about treatment, if required. Remember, simple actions save lives. You can also call the National Hepatitis Information Line on 1800 437 222.

Local World Hepatitis Day activities and events

World Hepatitis Day in Australia is coordinated by Hepatitis Australia and conducted under the umbrella of the Love your Liver campaign. It is rolled out locally by all the state and territory hepatitis organisations. A wide range of events and activities is taking place across Australia on, and around, 28 July. To see what is happening in your state, visit http://loveyourliver.com.au/whd-events/

Also supporting World Hepatitis Day are government health departments and organisations such as Hepatitis Australia, and the Haemophilia Foundation Australia.

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