Hepatitis – the unknown global liver disease

How healthy is your liver?

Most people don’t think twice about the ceaseless work this essential organ does to break down fats, produce energy, store vitamins and minerals recycle blood cells, produce proteins essential for blood clotting and to cleanse your blood of alcohol and toxins.

Liver damage can severely threaten your health and the liver disease hepatitis is a common illness that is the eighth largest killer in the world, with an average of 1.34 million people dying from the disease each year.   According to the World Hepatitis Alliance it is estimated that 300 million people worldwide are living with viral hepatitis unaware that they have the disease.

28 July is World Hepatitis Day, which aims to raise global awareness of this infectious disease. 

Jackie Maimin, CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA), explains that Hepatitis is an inflammatory disease of the liver.  “The condition can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis, or liver cancer.  The most common cause of hepatitis is due to infection by one of the hepatitis viruses, however it can also be caused by other infections, medications, alcohol, toxic substances and certain autoimmune diseases.”

The ICPA provide a few more facts on Hepatitis:


1. Not all forms are related to risky habits

Not all types of the hepatitis virus are spread through direct exchange of bodily fluids. Of the five different types of hepatitis, Hepatitis A and E are spread through contaminated food or water, while types B, C and D are transmitted through blood and body fluids.

“In South Africa vaccines for Hepatitis A and B are available. There is a vaccine for type C however it is currently only available in China,” says Maimin.


2. Most people don’t realize they have it

Sometimes hepatitis can be hard to detect because it starts out with mild, flu-like symptoms including fever, fatigue, and body aches. It can take weeks or months before you see symptoms like a skin rash, loss of appetite, weight loss, and the trademark yellowing of the skin and eyes known as jaundice.  For some people, these symptoms take years to develop—or they won’t show up at all, particularly when it comes to hepatitis C.


3. Contaminated water and food are risky

Hepatitis A and E are both considered acute viral diseases: that is, most people recover completely without long-term damage. However, the infections can be more serious in people who already have liver disease. Both viruses are transmitted through food or drinking water that’s been contaminated with the virus.

“If you plan to travel to countries with poor sanitation, you’ll want to make sure you practice good hygiene, including washing your hands after bathroom trips, drinking previously boiled water or purified bottled water, and avoiding uncooked foods and undercooked meat,” advises Maimin.


4. Some forms of Hepatitis can lead to cancer

Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer.


5. Drinking alcohol can make it worse

While certain medications can help people manage hepatitis, lifestyle choices can affect how it progresses. For one, patients need to make sure they’re not drinking too much alcohol as it can increase liver scarring  and cause the liver disease to progress faster.


6. Pregnant women should be tested for one type

Maimin says that the most common cause of hepatitis B transmission globally is mother to infant. “If you’ve had the hepatitis B vaccine, you should be protected from catching the virus and later passing it on to your child. But if you haven’t been vaccinated and are considering starting a family, now is a good time to visit your local community pharmacy to be vaccinated before you become pregnant.”


7. Two of the diseases are linked

People who already have chronic hepatitis B are at an increased risk of becoming infected with a second virus, hepatitis D, also called delta hepatitis. Hepatitis D is not treatable. “Once again, the best way to protect yourself is to get the hepatitis B vaccine, which, according to the World Health Organization,  is up to 95% effective at preventing infections.”


8. Treatments have evolved

“In the past, an antiviral medicine called interferon has been the drug of choice to treat chronic hepatitis C, but the medication often has uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea, diarrhoea, fatigue, and muscle aches. However, thanks to two recent FDA drug approvals—sofosbuvir and simeprevir—hepatitis patients have more reason to be optimistic about being able to effectively treat the infection,” says Maimin.  “While the medication can be used in combination with interferon, there is growing evidence that they are effective on their own. A recent trial treated patients using both sofosbuvir and simeprevir found a 94% cure rate in chronic hepatitis C patients.”


You can take steps to protect yourself

The ICPA advise that people can protect themselves from hepatitis by doing the following:

  • Avoid contact with blood and body fluids by wearing gloves when touching or cleaning up other people’s blood, vomit or other body fluids;
  • Don’t share razors, toothbrushes, pierced earrings, or other personal items with anyone;
  • Use condoms if you have multiple sexual partners, or when having sex with an infected person;
  • Don’t share chewing gum;
  • Make certain any needles or other sharp implements for drugs, ear piercing, manicuring or tattooing are properly sterilized;
  • Be careful about the water you drink and food you eat when travelling abroad.
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