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Viral hepatitis is an inflamation of the liver caused by viruses. Although many different viruses can cause the disease, the majority of infections are caused one of five hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D, and E. What should you know about them?

Viruses are infectious particles. They can't really be called organisms, since they lack most of the structures shared by cells. They are, simply put, only "alive" once they're inside the cell they attack. Once the virus gets inside the cell, it takes over the cell and uses it to reproduce. Many different viruses attack many different types of cells, tissues and organs. Of the viruses that attack the liver, hepatitis virus A, B, C, D, and E are most common.

What should every person know about the way they're spread? How can you prevent viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by Hepatovirus A (HAV). This type of virus is transmitted via food and water contaminated with feces from someone who is infected with this type of virus. The infection is usually mild, but, rarely, the complications can lead to acute liver failure and death. Although this type of hepatitis is usually associated with countries with poor sanitation, there are as many as 30,000 new cases of hepatitis A in the United States each year.

Is there a vaccine?

Yes. All children and infants should be vaccinated. Some adults who are at risk of contracting the disease should consider vaccination as well. The risk factors and vulnerable groups include:

  • Travel to a country where hepatitis A is frequently seen
  • Drug use
  • Men engaging in sexual activity with other men
  • Professionals working with animals that have hepatitis A

Since this disease is usually travel-related, you should get a vaccine if you choose to travel to a country with a high incidence of this disease. Also, always use safe water for both drinking and washing food. Avoid fish and ice in those countries. Always wash your hands — with safe, bottled water if necessary, something you should also use to wash vegetables. 

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by Hepatovirus B (HBV). This disease is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood, semen, or other bodily fluids. Hepatitis B can cause a chronic infection that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death. More than 250 million people worldwide are living with hepatitis B, and more than 80,000 new cases are reported each year in the US.

Is there a vaccine?

Yes. Following the WHO's recommendations, the vaccine should be administered within the first 24 hours after birth. As for adults, the vaccine is recommended for the following risk groups:

  • People with diabetes
  • People who change sexual partners frequently
  • Prison inmates
  • IV drug users
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who get hemodialysis
Since the virus can survive out of the body for seven days, objects such as razors, toothbrushes, and needles are potentially hazardous. One of the ways you can get infected with hepatitis B is by getting a tattoo or a piercing in an unsanitary environment.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by Hepatovirus C (HCV). The virus is transmitted via infected blood, and, less commonly, by sexual intercourse or from mother to child. If the infection is chronic, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is estimated that 17,000 people get infected in the US each year, and about 400,000 people worldwide die of HCV infection complications each year. Groups of people who should test for HCV include people who inject drugs, people who use intranasal drugs, prisoners, and people infected with HIV.

Is there a vaccine?

Unfortunately, no. But there are other means of prevention that we should use. Since hepatitis C is a bloodborne infection, most of the prevention tips for HBV infection apply to this disease too. But, it is important to note that the virus can't be spread through breast milk, kissing, hugging, food or water. If a person does get infected by HCV, there are several drugs that can be used to treat the disease, some of which have a cure rate of 95 percent.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D is caused by Hepatovirus D (HDV), but this particle is actually a subviral satellite, an infective particle even smaller than viruses. Satellites can't replicate on their own, and need a larger, more complex, helper virus to do so. HDV needs HBV, which causes hepatitis B, to cause an infection. This means two things: 

  • HDV is not able to cause the infection on its own
  • The only way to get infected by HDV is being infected with HBV in the first place
This particle is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids. Unfortunately, this co-infection is the most dangerous form of chronic viral hepatitis. The treatment isn't very successful, and the illness progresses rapidly, leading to liver cancer.

Is there a vaccine?

No. And yes. A vaccine for HDV doesn't exist. However, since it depends on HBV to cause the infection, the vaccine for HBV protects against HDV infection too. The good news is that the number of new infections is decreasing each year, thanks to the HBV vaccine.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by Hepatovirus E (HEV). A person can get infected by ingesting food or water contaminated with feces (similar to hepatitis A). Also, a mother can infect her fetus during pregnancy. Some types of this virus cause the infection in animals, such as pigs, and people can get infected if they eat undercooked meat. This infection is mostly associated with regions such as East Asia, Africa and Central America, but it is not uncommon to find HEV infections in Europe and North America. The disease rarely goes into chronic form, and usually the resolves itself in two to six weeks. 

Is there a vaccine?

Yes, but only in China. The best way to keep safe from this disease is to check the origin of your food. If you plan on traveling to regions where this disease is more common, always use safe water for drinking, cooking and washing. Always wash your hands, especially before making food.

In conclusion

  • Hepatitis A and E spread by fecal contamination of food and water.
  • HBV, HCV and HDV spread by blood and other bodily fluids.
  • There are vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B (and hepatitis E, but only in China).
  • The vaccine for HBV protects from HDV infection
  • Wash your hands, use safe water supply, be careful when getting a tattoo or a piercing, practice safe sex

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