The next health awareness day on the calendar for 2016 is World Hepatitis Day on 28th July. This year is even more special as it marks the beginning of the World Health Organisation’s campaign to eliminate Viral Hepatitis by 2030, a decision taken in May 2016. It’s enormously ambitious, but similar schemes in the past have worked, most notably with smallpox. Could Viral Hepatitis be a thing of the past in the next couple of decades?
What is Hepatitis?
Most people do not realise that there are seven forms of hepatitis although the symptoms are very similar and the general term describes inflammation of the liver. Symptoms include joint and muscle pain, fever, nausea, sickness, tiredness, loss of appetite, gut pain, jaundice and dark urine being the most common.
- Hepatitis A spreads through food contaminated by an infected person. Typically, it comes through their stools and passes into the food due to of poor personal hygiene. It is most common in developing countries with poor sanitation
- Hepatitis B is spread from pregnant women to their unborn children and sometimes via unprotected sex and contaminated needles in drug use
- Hepatitis C is the most common form in the UK and is spread by blood to blood contact
- Hepatitis D can only spread in patients with Hepatitis A and through transfer of bodily fluids (like HepC: drug use and sex)
- Hepatitis E, like A, spreads through contaminated food. It is mild and short term
- Alcoholic Hepatitis is not viral. It is caused by over-consumption of alcohol and cannot be transmitted
- Finally, the least common of all is Autoimmune Hepatitis, caused by a reaction of long-term hepatitis. Here, the immune system attacks the liver
In each case, the liver suffers the symptoms and is put under threat. Treatments are varied depending on the type that the patient has but medical intervention is required in most cases.
Should You Get a Vaccination Before Travelling?
The most numerous infections are in countries with poor sanitation and poor understanding of personal hygiene. When travelling to a developing country such as Africa or the Indian subcontinent, your nurse or Doctor will recommend vaccination against Hepatitis A (the most common form). However, it is not just recommended for travels to the developing world. Travellers to certain parts of the USA and Canada should also seek medical advice. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all common destinations. British visitors should seek vaccination against HepA.
At present, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B are the only conditions where there is a vaccine. The others are only a threat to high-risk groups and is more difficult to spread through regular means. Hepatitis B vaccines are recommended for high-risk groups and those with certain existing medical conditions. If unsure, please see your Doctor. Most commonly, you are likely to receive recommendation for vaccination against HepA.
This Year’s Campaign
As mentioned above, the World Health Organisation is pulling out all the stops this year to aggressively pursue Viral Hepatitis. Their plan is to eliminate the disease by 2030. Sanitation is such a simple thing to introduce, especially when combined with personal hygiene. Our understanding of the need for clean water and personal hygiene in Europe goes back several centuries to the cholera epidemics of earlier times. In the developing world, there are still places without clean water or an effective sanitation system.
Sanitation is just half of the story and is about just some of the types of hepatitis. Their campaign will also focus on drug users and other high-risk groups who may spread the virus through infected blood. Their attack is multipronged, focusing on direct medical intervention, awareness, vaccination and education on personal hygiene and blood safety.
They are asking for your help. You can donate to the WHO to help combat Viral Hepatitis, or simply share their information on social media to help raise awareness. Finally, you may get involved by helping out at the campaign in the UK.