When we talk about the benefits of vaccinations, we stress the importance of protecting yourself from hepatitis. Once you learn what hepatitis is, why it can be so difficult to recognize, when it can (or can’t) be treated, and how effective vaccines are for protection, you’ll want to make sure your whole family is up to date on their shots.
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that’s usually caused by a virus. Of the five types of viral hepatitis, Hepatitis A, B, and C are most common in the United States. Millions of Americans may have the disease but do not experience any symptoms, while others become extremely sick.
The symptoms of Hepatitis A, B and C are consistent, with a few minor differences:
Caused by the Hepatitis A virus (HAV), Hepatitis A is spread through contaminated food or water, or exposure to people who are infected with the illness. HAV is often found in situations where there is unclean water, poor sanitation, and/or a lack of personal cleanliness.
While it is less common in the U.S. then either Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C, as recently as 2016, a widespread outbreak drove a 30% increase in Hepatitis A infections. And, in 2017, California’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to a Hepatitis A outbreak that occurred in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz counties.
Infected children under six years of age usually won’t show any symptoms, while adults with HAV will experience the symptoms outlined above. Symptoms typically last about two months and result in antibodies that protect against reinfection.
Vaccination is your best protection: 95% of adults who get a single dose of the vaccine develop protective antibodies, and nearly 100% of adults who receive two doses develop defensive antibodies. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a division of the Centers for Disease Control, recommends vaccines for:
- All children at one year of age
- People who are homeless or who suffer from irregular housing situations
- Those at risk for complications from HAV
- Anyone who would like to protect themselves against the disease
Caused by the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV), Hepatitis B is an infectious disease that can be fatal. If untreated it can lead to death from cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. HBV is spread through the blood or body fluids of an infected person. It may also be passed by sharing needles or syringes (drug use), or from mother to baby at birth. The disease incubates for about 90 days before symptoms begin to show.
For some, HBV is a short but painful illness, but others may suffer for much longer—a small percentage of people are infected for life. Ninety-percent of infected babies will suffer chronically, while only 2-6% of adults will have the same reaction—and many children won’t show symptoms at all, though they still carry HBV. Symptoms (see above) will last anywhere from several weeks to six months. Those who develop chronic hepatitis may experience severe liver damage. The earlier in life it’s contracted, the more damage HBV usually does.
While those with chronic HBV can take medications to manage their symptoms, the best treatment is vaccination. ACIP recommends vaccinations for:
- All infants and children under 19 years of age
- People at risk through sexual exposure
- People at risk through blood exposure
- Those who travel internationally to countries where HBV is more concentrated
- Those who have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)
- Patients with chronic liver disease or HIV (individuals may be coinfected with both diseases)
- Those who wish to protect themselves against HBV
Caused by the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), Hepatitis C can range from a mild illness to a serious lifelong disease leading to permanent liver damage. HCV is a bloodborne virus, most often passed through needles, syringes, or other drug equipment. It can also spread through insufficient sterilization of medical equipment, or untreated blood or blood products.
When someone becomes infected with HCV, they generally don’t show any symptoms that would encourage a doctor’s visit. When they do begin to experience symptoms, they will include those outlined above. There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C because the virus mutates too quickly, but five years ago the FDA approved a treatment for those who are infected. While being extraordinarily costly, this is the first treatment that has helped patients without requiring a liver transplant.
Because both viruses spread in a similar manner, many people with HIV are also infected with HBV (1 in 10) or HCV (1 in 4). Liver disease is a major non-AIDS cause of death for those infected with HIV due to the coinfection.
If you believe yourself to be at risk for Hepatitis, contact AltaMed to learn about appropriate immunizations. We can all do our part to keep the rates of infection down and to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Call us at (888)499-9303 to learn more.