Raising awareness for World Hepatitis Day

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Did you know that close to 400 million people worldwide have chronic viral hepatitis and that a person dies from a hepatitis-related illness every 30 seconds?

According to Affinity Health, hepatitis, known as a silent killer, is a disease caused by a group of viruses that attacks the liver, replicates within the liver cells, and causes this important organ responsible for filtering blood to become inflamed.

On July 28, World Hepatitis Day is commemorated to raise global awareness and understanding of hepatitis.

There are five different hepatitis viruses that can spread differently, affect diverse populations, and have other health outcomes.

Hepatitis A is prevalent in all developing countries where young children primarily acquire it. It is a highly contagious disease and spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus — even in minute amounts — through close personal contact with an infected person or consuming contaminated food or drink.

In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa, hepatitis B is prevalent in two age groups: young children and young sexually active adults. Hepatitis B is transmitted when blood, sperm, or other bodily fluids from a virus-infected person enter the body of an uninfected person. Hepatitis B is a short-term illness for many people. Others may develop a long-term, chronic infection that leads to serious, even life-threatening health problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. Between 10-18% of South African adults are also hepatitis B carriers.

Infections with hepatitis C are less common in South Africa, with only about 1% of adults infected. Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood contact with an infected person. Today, most people contract hepatitis C by sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs. Hepatitis C is a short-term illness for some people, but it becomes a long-term, chronic infection for more than half of those who contract the virus. Cirrhosis and liver cancer are two serious, even life-threatening, side effects of chronic hepatitis C.

Hepatitis B and C kill 1.4 million people each year, more than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined, and are on par with tuberculosis. These viruses are responsible for two out of every three liver cancer deaths worldwide.

Hepatitis D is found in several parts of the world, but it is infrequent in South Africa for unknown reasons. It can only be contracted by people who also have the hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis D is transmitted when blood or other bodily fluids from a virus-infected person enter the body of an uninfected person.

Lastly, the hepatitis E virus is common in India and Southeast Asia. The virus is found in an infected person’s stool. When someone unknowingly ingests the virus – even in minute amounts – it spreads. People in developing countries are most likely to contract hepatitis E from drinking water contaminated with the virus’s faeces. Hepatitis E is not common in South Africa, with only a handful of confirmed cases of Hepatitis E linked to people who had recently travelled to India and returned to SA.

Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer, which is why early diagnosis is key.

Hepatitis presents with different symptoms, including:

  • Vomiting
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Agitation or confusion
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Body aches
  • Jaundice
  • Dark urine
  • Stomach pain

Hepatitis symptoms will usually lead a health care provider to suspect the disease early on. Hepatitis A and B diagnosis in the lab requires only a few simple blood tests, while, in some cases, a specialised test may be needed to determine hepatitis C virus.

“Hepatitis is a serious disease that impacts millions of people worldwide. While deaths from tuberculosis and HIV have been declining, deaths from hepatitis are tragically increasing,” says Murray Hewlett, the CEO of Affinity Health.

“To decrease the number of hepatitis A and B infections, it’s important that communities are aware that both these hepatitis viruses are vaccine-preventable. Speak to your doctor or call your local public health department to see if free or low-cost vaccines are available, and make sure your children are up to date on their vaccinations.”

You can download the South African children’s vaccination schedule here.  On the schedule, the Hepatitis B vaccine is listed as HBV, and administered from the age of six weeks.

Compiled by Justine Fortuin