28 July is World Hepatitis Day. If you aren’t familiar with the term, Hepatitis is a contagious disease that kills about 1,5 million people worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organisation.
“Most people at some point in their life will find themselves at risk of contracting this highly infectious disease – yet many remain unaware of the threat!” says Dr Jacques Badenhorst, a gastroenterologist at Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital, Cape Town.
Here’s what you need to know…
1 Not all forms of Hepatitis come from lifestyle choices
Not all types of the Hepatitis virus are spread through direct exchange of bodily fluids. Of the five different types of hepatitis, Hepatitis A and E are spread through contaminated food or water, while types B, C and D are transmitted through blood and body fluids.
2 It can be a silent killer
Sometimes Hepatitis can be hard to detect because it starts out with mild, flu-like symptoms including fever, fatigue and body aches. It can take weeks or even months before you see symptoms like a skin rash, loss of appetite, weight loss, and the trademark yellowing of the skin and eyes known as jaundice. “For some people, these symptoms take years to develop – or they won’t show up at all, particularly when it comes to hepatitis C,” says Dr Badenhorst.
3 Beware of contaminated food and water
Hepatitis A and E are transmitted through food or drinking water that’s been contaminated with the virus. Most people recover completely from Hepatitis A and E without any long-term damage. However, the infections can be more serious in people who already have liver disease.
“If you plan to travel to countries with poor sanitation, you’ll want to make sure you practice good hygiene, including washing your hands after bathroom trips, drinking previously boiled water or purified bottled water, and avoiding uncooked foods and undercooked meat,” advises Dr Badenhorst.
4 It can lead to cancer
Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer.
5 Booze is a no-no
“Lifestyle choices can definitely affect how Hepatitis progresses. For one, patients need to make sure they’re not drinking too much alcohol as it can increase liver scarring and cause the liver disease to progress faster,” cautions Dr Badenhorst.
6 Hand in hand
People who already have chronic hepatitis B are at an increased risk of becoming infected with a second virus, Hepatitis D, also called delta hepatitis. Hepatitis D is not treatable. “The best way to protect yourself is to get the hepatitis B vaccine, which, according to the World Health Organisation, is up to 95% effective at preventing infections,” informs Dr Badenhorst.
How to protect yourself from being infected
- Avoid contact with blood and body fluids by wearing gloves when touching or cleaning up other people’s blood, vomit or other body fluids.
- Don’t share razors, toothbrushes, pierced earrings or other personal items with anyone.
- Use condoms if you have multiple sexual partners or when having sex with an infected person.
- Don’t share chewing gum.
- Make certain any needles or other sharp implements for drugs, ear piercing, manicuring or tattooing are properly sterilised.
- Be careful about the water you drink and food you eat when travelling abroad.
“Effective vaccines are available against hepatitis and it is highly recommended that you go for immunisation if you think you are at risk, now or in the future. It is particularly recommended that you are vaccinated if you are planning to travel to a country that does not have proper sanitation,” says Dr Badenhorst.
Compiled by Health Writer Belinda dos Santos