May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, and a good time to encourage Maine families to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B and for those at risk for hepatitis to get tested. That’s why we’re helping Maine parents study up on the different types of viral hepatitis (Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C), their causes and symptoms, and the available vaccines.
Hepatitis is a short- or long-term inflammation of the liver, a vital organ that helps us get nourishment from food, eliminates toxins and wastes from the body and keeps our blood clotting normally. Hepatitis is a very serious and life-threatening condition because if left untreated, it can cause the liver to fail or liver cancer to develop later in life.
Hepatitis can be caused by certain diseases, by heavy drinking, and by bacterial and viral infections. There are three main types of infectious viral hepatitis: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. If a patient with virial hepatitis is diagnosed within six months of getting infected, their illness is called acute hepatitis. If someone has hepatitis for longer than six months, they have chronic hepatitis.
All forms of hepatitis are serious and Maine parents should take them seriously. By getting all the available hepatitis vaccines on schedule and being screened if you are pregnant or at risk, you can keep your family healthy and hepatitis-free.
- HEPATITIS A
Hepatitis A infection is always acute—it does not become a chronic condition. However, infection can be severe and lead to serious complications. Hepatitis A causes fever, extreme fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and jaundice (the yellowing of skin or eyes). Children with hepatitis A often do not have any symptoms, but they are very contagious. Hepatitis A spreads easily, and everyone is at risk of infection. Babies and small children are most at risk of infection because of how it spreads: by exposure to invisible particles of the feces from people who have the disease.
Many people with Hepatitis A don’t look or feel sick at first. If they don’t wash their hands properly after using the restroom, they can spread the virus quickly and easily. Little children are still learning proper hygiene, and they share everything. When children live with, go to daycare with or are cared for by someone with Hepatitis A, the infection spreads rapidly. In 2008, hepatitis spread to several children and family members at a school in southern Maine. Food and water with fecal contamination is another common way Hepatitis A is spread. In 2013, there was a large, multi-state outbreak of hepatitis A associated with frozen fruit. Also in 2013, over 100 people in may have been exposed to hepatitis A at a community potluck supper in Durham, prompting a vaccine clinic. And in 2014, a Maine restaurant worker with hepatitis A may have exposed restaurant patrons.
Luckily, there is a vaccine for Hepatitis A. Two doses of the hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all children – the first dose at age 12 months and the second dose 6 months later. Children who did not get their hepatitis A vaccine can and should still get their 2 doses with the second 6 months after the first. Maine parents should make sure all their children are up-to-date on the Hepatitis A vaccine. All household contacts of international adoptees should also be vaccinated against hepatitis A.
- HEPATITIS B
If you are pregnant or recently had a baby, your Ob/Gyn has probably spoken to you about (and tested you for) Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids, and mothers with the infection can pass it to their babies at birth. Children can also become infected if they live with or are cared for by someone with the disease, or if they come into contact with blood in a healthcare setting or their environment. While it doesn’t spread quite so easily as Hepatitis A, something as simple as sharing a toothbrush or razor can spread Hepatitis B. Many parents think that their children and family aren’t at risk, but many cases of hepatitis B had no identified risk factors and the source of their infection could not be determined.
Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B can become chronic. It can also lead to hospitalization and death. Babies and children infected with the virus often will have it their whole lives. And because most people infected with Hepatitis B do not feel sick or have symptoms for a long time, they spread the virus to others, including children, without realizing it. An estimated 2 million Americans have chronic hepatitis B.
Vaccination is the safest, surest way to protect your children from Hepatitis B. Newborn babies should receive their first dose of the vaccine in the hospital at birth, and their remaining two doses at subsequent well child visits.
- HEPATITIS C
Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C is spread through blood and body fluids, though blood transmission is more common. Hepatitis C can go undetected for years, causing serious liver damage. An estimated 3.5 million Americans currently have Hepatitis C, and over 2/3 of infected patients develop chronic infection. Hepatitis C is a huge problem in Maine, with our current heroin epidemic driving infection rates to triple the national average.
Hepatitis C can present as a mild illness that lasts a few weeks, or develop into a lifelong condition that seriously damages liver function. While curable, treatments are very expensive. Many people infected with Hepatitis C are also struggling with drug addiction, poverty, homelessness or other health problems. These vulnerable patients may find it more difficult to access treatment and practice the self-care required to manage their condition.
There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C, although scientific researchers are working hard to develop one. In the meantime, Hepatitis C is treatable and it can be cured if it is properly diagnosed. If you think you might be at risk, contact your primary care provider to be tested.
The CDC recommends that you be screened for Hepatitis C if you:
- were born between 1945 and 1965
- were treated for a blood clotting issue before 1987
- received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- received long-term hemodialysis treatment
- have had multiple sexual partners
- have ever been an intravenous drug user
ARE YOU OR YOUR CHILDREN AT RISK?
The CDC has developed a five-minute online quiz that calculates your personal risk of contracting hepatitis. Want to know more, check out the Immunization Action Coalition’s handout on the ABCs of viral hepatitis. If you have any questions or concerns, or aren’t sure if your children are up-to-date on their hepatitis vaccinations, talk to your primary care physician today!