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Viral Hepatitis: Hidden Epidemic

A health care time bomb is about to go off in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than four million Americans are going about their lives unaware that they have viral hepatitis. Of seven viruses known to cause this serious liver infection, two, hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV), often have no symptoms for decades. People can be very sick, and, not knowing this, inadvertently pass these viruses to others. Poor personal hygiene habits contribute to still more people becoming ill.

During the next ten years, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimates that 150,000 Americans could die from liver cancer or end-stage liver disease caused by untreated HBV and HCV. Medical costs associated with HCV patients alone could more than double over the next 20 years, from $30 billion to $80 billion per year.

Being tested for HBV and HCV allows you to choose treatment options should you have either of these infections as well as take precautions to protect others.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B (HBV) is transmitted through blood and infected body fluids. This can occur through blood-to-blood contact, unprotected sex, sharing needles and sharing personal items like razors and toothbrushes. Pregnant women with HBV can pass it to their babies during the birthing process.

HBV can be prevented with a vaccine. However, 350 million people worldwide are infected. This includes one out of every 20 people in the United States where 40,000 new instances of HBV are diagnosed every year and HBV-related diseases kill 3,000. Everyone faces the possibility of being exposed, but certain occupations and life style choices increase risk.

High-risk groups for HBV include:

  • Health care workers and emergency personnel
  • Staff and residents of correctional facilities and group homes
  • Partners or individuals living in households that include an infected person
  • Heterosexuals who have had multiple sex partners and men who have had sex with men
  • Illicit drug users
  • Individuals who received a blood transfusion prior to 1992
  • Individuals from or who travel to countries where HBV is common (Asia, Africa, South America, the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East)
  • Individuals with early kidney disease or undergoing kidney dialysis.

Some people recover from HBV without treatment. Others develop chronic HBV infections. Antiviral medication administered over a period of six months can sometimes prevent further liver damage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that starting with infants at birth, everyone be vaccinated against HBV. The vaccination is usually given as a series of shots over a six-month period.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C (HCV) is transmitted through contact with infected blood. Current and former intravenous drug users are at a particularly high risk. Health care workers are at increased risk due to work that can bring them into contact with HCV-infected blood. In the U.S., HCV infects more than three million people; 17,000 are newly diagnosed every year and 12,000 die from HCV-related illnesses.

Many people with undetected HCV develop chronic liver disease. Liver failure from HCV is one of the most common reasons for liver transplants.

HCV can sometimes be cured with antiviral drugs. Unlike HBV, there is no vaccine for HCV. Prevention means avoiding risky behaviors and for health care workers, strict adherence to OSHA’s BloodBorne Pathogens Standard.

If you have HBV or HCV, the sooner treatment begins, the better the outcome. If you or your children have not been immunized for HBV, talk to your health care provider about being vaccinated.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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