What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a group of diseases that affect the liver and can lead to serious health consequences such as cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. Health professionals have identified many forms of the virus, including types A, B, C, D, E and G. In Canada, types A, B and C are thought to cause about 90% of acute cases in the country. For some people, symptoms of the virus may be mild and short-lived, while others become carriers of the disease and can spread it to others unknowingly. Hepatitis is known as a “silent disease” because symptoms may not appear until considerable damage to the liver has been done. Early diagnosis and treatment can help to lessen damage to the liver and can prevent you from spreading the virus to others unknowingly. Prevention of hepatitis is the key and there are many steps Canadians can take to protect themselves.
How can I protect myself from hepatitis exposure?
- Practice good personal hygiene (wash hands after using the washroom, after changing a diaper and before preparing or eating food).
- Avoid raw or undercooked food.
- Ensure produce is washed thoroughly before eating.
- Use bottled water for drinking, making ice cubes, and washing fruits and vegetables when visiting a developing country.
- Be cautious when eating and drinking in locations with poor sanitation or unsafe food handling practices (especially when travelling to foreign countries).
- Practice safe sex.
- Do not share personal materials that may have come into contact with blood (i.e. needles, razors, tooth brushes, nail clippers, etc.).
- Do not share needles or syringes with others.
- If getting a tattoo or body piercing, ensure the establishment is using proper sterilization and infection control practices such as using single-use sterile needles and safe disposal of used needles.
- Get vaccinated, particularly if travelling to areas of high hepatitis activity (i.e. The Caribbean or South America).
Typical symptoms of acute hepatitis are:
- Appetite loss;
- Abdominal pain;
- Jaundice (yellowish colour of the skin and eyeballs).
Hepatitis A, also known as HAV, is generally associated with poor sanitation and hygiene practices and it is one of the most common vaccine-preventable illnesses in travellers. Hepatitis A is typically transmitted by eating or drinking something that is contaminated. A common source is through raw or undercooked food, food handled by people who have not washed their hands, or water contaminated by animal or human waste. Although it is mainly thought of a “traveller’s disease”, it is still possible to contract it in Canada, and even travellers visiting luxury hotels have been known to contract the virus. Travellers are encouraged to take an HBV vaccine before travel, which should be taken six weeks before you leave and can offer up to 20 years of protection. Currently there is no treatment for hepatitis A; only supportive care to help relieve symptoms. Generally, recovery takes a few weeks; however, it can take months before the disease runs its course. Most people recover without side effects and have a lifelong immunity against HAV.
Hepatitis B or HBV is the most prevalent hepatitis strain in the world. HBV is transmitted through sexual contact as well as blood and bodily fluids. It is estimated that 35% of those infected don’t know they have the virus. Many people infected with the Hepatitis B virus recover completely and develop lifelong immunity to the virus. Unfortunately, about 90% of babies born to mothers who are hepatitis B carriers have a high chance of developing chronic HBV later in life. The good news is it is possible to receive an HBV vaccine for those at risk, and HBV immune globulin is an option for those people who have had recent contact with infected body fluids.
In Canada, is estimated that between 210,000 and 275,000 people are currently infected with hepatitis C; of those, only 30% know they have the virus. Injection drug use is thought to be responsible for at least half of HCV infections but you can also contract HCV through tattooing and body piercing. Up to 90% of infected persons carry HCV indefinitely, and there is no vaccine against HCV. Over the long term, infected persons are at risk of profound fatigue, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Sometimes, your work may take you out of Canada. Many people must travel for work to developing countries where the risk of contracting hepatitis is greater. To protect yourself and others from contracting potentially harmful diseases such as hepatitis, precautions should be taken seriously. For those workers travelling to foreign countries, vaccination should be taken prior to departure. Health care workers can protect themselves from hepatitis exposure by using gloves and taking extra care when handling bodily fluids, syringes and needles. Your doctor can test for hepatitis with a series of blood tests; antibody and antigen tests can detect each of the different hepatitis viruses.
Health Canada: Hepatitis