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Are You at Risk for Viral Hepatitis? You Could Know in Five Minutes

July 28, 2014

Today is World Hepatitis Day - designated to increase awareness of viral hepatitis as a global health threat.  Viral hepatitis is often a silent disease, and many who are at risk for viral hepatitis are unaware of their risk and unaware of being infected, until many years later. Are you at risk for hepatitis? The CDC has an online Hepatitis Risk Assessment that takes about five minutes to complete and will let you know if you should be tested or vaccinated for hepatitis.

All types of viral hepatitis can cause inflammation of the liver; however, hepatitis B and C infections can result in a lifelong, chronic infection – leading to severe complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Worldwide, more than one million people die each year from viral hepatitis. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 400 million people have chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections.

The hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses are two of the most common bloodborne pathogens (diseases spread through blood contact) in the United States. It is estimated that nearly 5.3 million people in the United States have chronic (lifelong) hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection. 

Hepatitis A is transmitted primarily through contaminated food or water. Globally, there are an estimated 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A each year. Cases of hepatitis A are most common in countries that lack safe drinking water and have poor sanitation. Although rare, foodborne outbreaks of hepatitis A still occur in the U.S. Contamination can occur at any point – growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking. There is vaccine available to prevent hepatitis A infection. In the U.S., hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for children, beginning at age 12 months, and adults who are not already immune.

Hepatitis B is transmitted through sexual contact and/or blood exposure. About 65 percent of new (acute) hepatitis B infections are sexually transmitted and that hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV? Approximately 10 percent of adults who become infected with hepatitis B will develop a chronic (lifelong) infection. If infants are infected with hepatitis B virus (it can occur during childbirth), they have a 90 percent chance of developing a chronic infection. Fortunately, there are precautions that can be taken at birth to prevent transmission from an infected mother to her baby. Chronic (lifelong) hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States.  There is no “cure” for chronic hepatitis B; however, there are anti-viral medications available to suppress the virus and slow the progression of disease and therefore reduce the risk of developing severe liver complications.

There is vaccine available to prevent hepatitis B. Most children are now vaccinated against hepatitis B as infants; however, many adults still remain unvaccinated and are susceptible to becoming infected with hepatitis B virus.  In Georgia, more than half of new cases of hepatitis B are occurring in adults between the ages of 19 and 40 years.

Hepatitis C is transmitted through exposure to infected blood. Approximately 80% of those infected with hepatitis C will develop a chronic hepatitis C infection, which may lead to liver disease and liver cancer. The most common means of transmission is through direct passage through the skin; primarily through sharing needles, syringes, and/or drug preparation equipment. In fact, 50-80 percent of injection drug users will become infected with hepatitis C virus within 5 years of starting to inject drugs. It can also be spread when personal items are shared (e.g., glucose monitors, nail clippers, tattoo equipment). Most people do not have any symptoms when first infected with hepatitis C. In fact, for many, it is not until decades later that they begin to experience the complications of the disease. There have been tremendous advancements in hepatitis C therapy in recent years. Oral therapies with few side effects are now available that can cure hepatitis C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Preventative Task Fork (USPTF) now recommend that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C, regardless of risk.  The CDC estimates that nearly 75 percent of chronic hepatitis C cases are among people born between 1945 and 1965 -often referred to as “Baby Boomers.”  If you were born between 1945 and 1965, talk to your health care provider about hepatitis C and get tested. For more information on hepatitis C, visit www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis.

Globally, it is estimated that at least 185 million people have been infected with hepatitis C, being most prevalent in low and middle income countries. The highest prevalence of hepatitis C infection is in Egypt, followed by Cameroon, Uganda, Uzbekistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan. Although the prevalence may be lower in countries with a higher population, it is estimated that nearly 30 million people in China and over 18 million people in India are infected with hepatitis C.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) conducts surveillance on viral hepatitis A, B and C infections reported throughout Georgia.  State and district staff monitor reports of viral hepatitis infections for outbreaks and offer testing and vaccination to exposed contacts.

DPH’s Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator (VHPC) provides technical assistance, training, and support to DPH programs and external community partners to promote viral hepatitis testing and vaccination. The VHPC collaborates with stakeholders statewide to increase awareness about hepatitis B and hepatitis C, promote testing and vaccination services, and link patients to care and treatment. Recently, the Hepatitis C Toolkit was developed for targeting hepatitis C testing and care efforts in primary care providers throughout Georgia.

Additionally, the Georgia Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention Program identifies hepatitis B-infected pregnant women, ensures exposed newborns receive postexposure prophylaxis, complete the hepatitis B vaccine series and post-vaccination blood tests to confirm the infant is protected against the hepatitis B virus.  You can learn more about the Georgia Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention Program at dph.georgia.gov/perinatal-hepatitis-b.

For more information on viral hepatitis, visit www.cdc.gov/hepatitis. Additional information about the Georgia Viral Hepatitis Program can be found on DPH’s website:  dph.georgia.gov/viral-hepatitis.

Join senior federal officials and community leaders for a webcast on Wednesday, July 30 from 12 noon to 2:30 p.m. EST as the White House recognizes World Hepatitis Day and leaders in the field.