May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month

May is Hepatitis Awareness Month

Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report on Viral Hepatitis in the United States and called for efforts to increase knowledge and awareness of this major public health problem. During the month of May, CDC and our public health partners are celebrating the 15th anniversary of National Hepatitis Awareness Month and, on May 19th, World Hepatitis Day.

These observances are intended to increase awareness about the large but often under-recognized burden of disease and premature death associated with viral hepatitis. An estimated 4.5 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C, which together account for the major cause of chronic liver disease and liver cancer.

What is Hepatitis?

“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver and refers to a group of viral infections that affect the liver. The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When inflamed or damaged, the liver’s function can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can cause Hepatitis but Hepatitis is most often caused by a virus. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis, B, and Hepatitis C – infections caused by three different, unrelated viruses. Hepatitis A occurs in an “acute” (time-limited) form, while Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can develop into lifelong, chronic illnesses. In the United States, many of the 4.5 million people who are chronically infected with viral hepatitis, many of whom do not know they are infected.

How Is Hepatitis Spread?

Hepatitis A is spread when a person ingests microscopic amounts of fecal matter from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces or stool from an infected person. Virus is present in the stool of persons with hepatitis A for several weeks. Although anyone can get Hepatitis A, some people are at greater risk such as those who travel to or live in countries where Hepatitis A is common, have sexual contact with someone who has Hepatitis A, or are household members or caregivers of a person infected with Hepatitis A.

Hepatitis B is usually spread when blood, semen, or another body fluid from a person infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact with an infected person or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment. Hepatitis B can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth. Hepatitis B is not spread through breastfeeding, sharing eating utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing.

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment with an infected person. Before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Hepatitis C is not spread through breastfeeding, sharing eating utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing.

NOTE: Healthcare associated outbreaks of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C continue to occur in the United States. These outbreaks occur primarily as a result of unsafe injection practices, including reuse of needles, fingerstick devices, and syringes, and because of other lapses in infection control. To prevent transmission of bloodborne pathogens, healthcare workers should adhere to recommended standard precautions and fundamental infection-control principles, including safe injection practices and appropriate aseptic techniques. Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health-Care Facilities

Can Viral Hepatitis Be Prevented?

Yes! Viral Hepatitis can be prevented.

  • The best way to prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated.
  • All children should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
  • Many adults are at risk for Hepatitis A and/or Hepatitis B and should also be vaccinated.
  • There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C but you can prevent Hepatitis C by not sharing needles or other equipment to inject cosmetic substances, drugs, or steroids, by not using personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, or glucose monitors and by not getting tattoos or body piercings at an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting.

How Serious Is Viral Hepatitis?

Over time, about 15% to 25% of people with chronic hepatitis develop serious liver problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. With early detection, many people can get lifesaving care and treatment that can limit disease progression, prevent cancer deaths and help break the cycle of unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.

If you think you might be at risk for viral hepatitis, talk to your health professional or health department about vaccination and testing.

Selected References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). May 12, 2010.