Our world is more connected globally than ever before. We have the capability to fly across the globe to see and experience other countries and cultures. There are opportunities for people to immigrate and seek refuge in countries that are not their country of origin. As we become a more diverse nation, it is important to note that people may not have access to healthcare services or early detection and treatment. Raising awareness of health issues, early detection, and available treatment—including treatment for hepatitis—is especially critical for immigrants and refugees.
The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ which maintains the body’s metabolic balance. When it is inflamed or damaged, its ability to function can be affected.
Different Types of Viral Hepatitis
There are at least five different types of viral hepatitis which affect the liver and have different symptoms and treatments. People may have been exposed to and living with the virus and not know it!
The three most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis A—is highly contagious and can spread from person to person. Sometimes food is tainted by a person who has the virus and has not washed their hands properly. Raw shellfish, fruits, vegetables, and undercooked foods often cause hepatitis A outbreaks. It usually causes only a mild illness, and almost always goes away on its own and does not cause long-term liver damage. Traveling to and living in a country with high infection rates can put you at higher risk. There is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B—is spread through contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. Anyone can get hepatitis B; however, individuals who are at higher risk are those who have multiple sex partners, inject illicit drugs, or have an increased exposure to blood or bodily fluids. It is possible to contract hepatitis B if you live with someone who has a chronic hepatitis B infection. It’s also possible to get hepatitis B if you share an infected person’s razor, toothbrush, or needles. You do not get hepatitis B from someone coughing around you, hugging a person with hepatitis B, or sharing food. In some cases, people get better on their own. In other cases, the virus does not clear and it causes a long-term infection. Over time, hepatitis B can lead to serious problems, including liver damage, liver failure, and liver cancer. There is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C—is spread through infected blood. Sharing needles or other items to inject drugs is the most common cause of infection. Getting a tattoo or body piercing with an infected needle is another means of exposure. About 25 percent of the population can get over the virus after a short-term infection. For others, they will carry the virus in their body for a longer time. Because there are no symptoms, former drug users may not realize they have the infection. People who received blood transfusions before 1992—before blood was screened for hepatitis C—also have a higher risk. Chronic hepatitis C can cause serious complications, including liver failure and liver cancer. The good news is—there are effective treatments for the virus.
Hepatitis D—only occurs when individuals are already infected with hepatitis B. It tends to make that disease more severe.
Hepatitis E—is mainly found in Asia, Mexico, India, and Africa. As with hepatitis A, an individual can get this by eating or drinking something that has been contaminated with the virus.
Worldwide 400 million people are living with hepatitis B or C. Every year 1.4 million people die from viral hepatitis which could have been prevented; Therefore, it’s important that people are educated about these viruses.
What steps can you take?
- Talk with your health care provider about vaccinations for hepatitis A and B.
- If you are traveling to regions where hepatitis A and B are common, discuss vaccination options with your health care provider.
- Use precautions when handling needles or sharp instruments.
- Wash your hands! For effective hand washing the CDC recommends that you wash your hands for 20 seconds—or while singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
Through education, awareness, access, treatment and care, each of us can influence change in disease prevention and health promotion!
Contributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN and planner with Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County extends her gratitude to infection disease specialist Dr. Abdul R. Siddiqui at Multicare Auburn Medical Center for reviewing this article.