Basic Information on Hepatitis

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Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E.

Hepatitis A and E are typically caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B, C and D usually occur as a result of potential contact with infected body fluids (e.g. from blood transfusions or invasive medical procedures using contaminated equipment). Hepatitis B is also transmitted by sexual contact.

The symptoms of hepatitis include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Hepatits-B-virions-Dane-particles
Hepatits B virions (Dane particles), Image courtesy of CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

How do we get hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). The virus interferes with the functions of the liver and activates the immune system, which produces a specific reaction to combat the virus. As a consequence of pathological damage, the liver becomes inflamed. A small percentage of infected people cannot get rid of the virus and become chronically infected – these people are at high risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

Hepatitis B virus is transmitted by contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person – the same way as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, HBV is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.

The main ways of getting infected with HBV are:

prenatal (from mother to baby at the birth)

child-to-child transmission

unsafe injections and transfusions

sexual contact.

Worldwide, most infections occur from mother-to-child, from child-to-child (especially in household settings), and from reuse of unspecialized needles and syringes. In many developing countries, almost all children become infected with the virus.

How to Protect Ourselves?

You can protect yourself against hepatitis B by being vaccinated. The hepatitis B vaccine has an outstanding record of safety and effectiveness, and since 1982, over one billion doses have been used worldwide. The vaccine is 95% effective in preventing chronic infections from developing. Protection lasts for 15 years at least, no booster is recommended by WHO as of today.

Immunization

Immunization is the process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the body’s own immune system to protect the person against subsequent infection or disease.

Immunization is a proven tool for controlling and eliminating life-threatening infectious diseases and is estimated to avert over 2 million deaths each year. It is one of the most cost-effective health investments, with proven strategies that make it accessible to even the most hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations. It has clearly defined target groups; it can be delivered effectively through outreach activities; and vaccination does not require any major lifestyle change.

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The writer enjoys medical education and has special interest in community medicine.