The 28th of July is World Hepatitis Day. Hepatitis affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide and kills close to 1.5 million people every year.
“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 who practises from the Netcare Christian Barnard Memorial hospital in Cape Town.
How healthy is your liver?
“Most people don’t think about the ceaseless work this essential organ does to break down fats, produce energy, store vitamins and minerals, recycle blood cells, produce proteins essential for blood clotting and cleanse your blood of alcohol and toxins. That’s why anything that messes with it is dangerous.”
“An estimated 400 million people worldwide have chronic viral hepatitis. Hepatitis is the eighth largest killer in the world,” says Dr Badenhorst, who provides a list of facts about Hepatitis ahead of World Hepatitis Day.
Not all forms 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.”
A silent killer
According to Dr Badenhorst, 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 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.”
Beware of contaminated water and food
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.
It can lead to cancer
Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer.
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.
Pregnant women should be tested
Dr Badenhorst says that the most common cause of hepatitis B transmission globally is mother to baby. “If you are considering starting a family, now is a good time to be tested for Hep B and consider being vaccinated before you become pregnant.”
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. “Once again, the best way to protect yourself is to get the hepatitis B vaccine, which, according to the World Health Organization, is up to 95% effective at preventing infections.”
Thankfully treatments have evolved
In the past, an antiviral medicine called interferon has been the drug of choice to treat chronic hepatitis C, but the medication often has uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea, diarrhoea, fatigue, and muscle aches. However, thanks to two recent FDA drug approvals—sofosbuvir and simeprevir—hepatitis patients have more reason to be optimistic about being able to effectively treat the infection.
How to protect yourself from being infected?
Dr Badenhorst advises that you can take steps to protect yourself from contracting Hepatitis:
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 sterilized;
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.
For more information or if you think you may be infected with Hepatitis contact Dr Badenhorst on +27 021 023 0723 or visit www.capegastroenterologist.co.za.
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