Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most often caused by a virus. In the US, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, B, and C. While they can all produce similar symptoms, each hepatitis virus affects the liver differently and has a different route of transmission. Fortunately, effective vaccines are available to help prevent hepatitis A and B.
Millions have it
Still, millions are living with viral hepatitis B and C, but many do not know they are infected, as you can live with the disease for decades without having symptoms. For all types of viral hepatitis, symptoms are less common in children than in adults.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by hepatitis A virus (HAV). The virus is spread by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, and by close person-to-person contact in a household.
Children remain unvaccinated
Although, hepatitis A vaccinations are recommended for children starting at ages 12-23, unfortunately, many US children remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection. Adults who are at risk and should be vaccinated include those with direct contact with someone who has hepatitis A, travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users, among others.
Hepatitis B is a more serious, potentially fatal liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that can affect individuals of all ages. Up to 2.2 million individuals in the US have long-term or chronic infections, which can lead to liver scarring, liver failure, and liver cancer. The HBV virus is spread when blood or body fluid from an infected person enters the body of a person who is not immune. HBV can also be spread through unprotected sex with an infected person, by sharing needles, or from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth.
Vaccination prevents HBV infection and related complications. In the US, hepatitis B vaccination is given within 24 hours of birth, as well as to children and adolescents who have not been vaccinated previously, and to adults at risk for HBV infection. Vaccines are available in the US to protect against HBV, including a new 2-does series vaccine recently recommended for adults 18 and older.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus. Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) by sharing needles. Hepatitis C is increasing in the wake of the national opioid epidemic. In the US, those born between 1945-1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C infection and CDC recommends testing for everyone born during that period.
For 70 to 80 percent of those infected with HCV, it becomes a chronic infection that can result in long-term serious health problems. There is currently no vaccine for HCV. The best way to prevent the disease is to avoid behaviors that can cause it to spread, particularly injecting drugs.
William Schaffner, MD, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, [email protected]