The term hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Inflammation occurs when an organ or tissue becomes red, swollen, hot and painful. The experience is similar to being stung by a bee. Therefore, hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by a virus or a toxin; including alcohol and by the body fighting itself (autoimmune disease).
The most common cause of hepatitis is a family of viruses named for the first five letters of the alphabet A, B, C, D, and E and the diseases they caused are named after them: Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E. Hepatitis caused by these family members may be of sudden onset and cure within a few weeks, to months with or without treatment (acute hepatitis) but sometimes, it becomes a long-lasting disease, causing damage, scarring and death of liver cells (chronic hepatitis).
Hepatitis B is the most common form of hepatitis worldwide. More than 250 million people worldwide are infected with the Hepatitis B virus. People mainly get the Hepatitis B virus through contact with blood contaminated with the virus but also from other contaminated body fluids. Most infected babies get it from their infected mothers at the time of birth. In rare cases is it sexually transmitted. 7 out of every 10 adults who get infected with Hep B fight off the infection and are cured with treatment. However, those who get infected as children are not so lucky; 9 out of every 10 of those infected at the time of their birth will not fight it off and develop chronic hepatitis. This happens because they got infected at a time when their immune system is not yet mature enough to fight off the infection. Up to 1 million people die annually from chronic hepatitis B. While there is a vaccine for Hep B, there is no need to vaccinate all adults against it because those who get infected with the virus fight it off successfully.
It is however advisable for adults who often come into contact with human blood and fluids to get vaccinated. These include among others; healthcare workers, sex workers, injection drug users, men who have sex with men, and people in most countries in Africa where there is a lot of Hep B infection in the population. All children must also receive the Hep B vaccination. To save children from the terrible outcome, most countries, including Uganda, have the vaccine as part of the national vaccination program for infants.
Hepatitis C (Hep C) is the second most common cause of Hepatitis. Approximately, 70 million people worldwide are infected with it, and like Hep B, majority of the infected are in sub-Saharan Africa. Hep C spreads in the same way as does Hep B. It is advisable to keep away from human bodily fluids whenever one can. Hep C has worse outcomes because about 9 out of every 10 people (adults and children) who get the infection proceed to chronic hepatitis, experiencing liver cell death which may be fatal. While Hep C tends to respond well to treatment, it has no vaccine.
Hepatitis A (Hep A) is a disease related to poor sanitation. Hepatitis A virus enters the body through the mouth. It is caught when people ingest foods or drinks contaminated with faeces containing the virus. It is important for people to wash their hands before handling food or drinking anything, especially in public eating places. Almost everyone who gets the infection experiences pain from the inflammation, nausea and body itching which in some cases can be life-threatening. Hep A has a vaccine but it is largely not available in most developing countries. There is no treatment for Hep A, so while the patient waits for it to run its natural course, they should be given medicine to treat the symptoms.
Hepatitis D (Hep D) virus like Hep B is spread through body fluids but only infects people who are already infected with Hep B. While it has no treatment or vaccine, the Hep B vaccine can protect you from it because without the Hep B, virus, it cannot survive in the body.
Hepatitis E (Hep E) gets one from eating contaminated undercooked pork or offals. People with a more exotic taste can get it from wild pigs, warthogs and shellfish. Most of the time, Hep E is a mild disease and cures in a short time without treatment. However, if one’s immunity is weakened, the effect may be fatal. There is no treatment or vaccine for it, but, the cure lies in cooking your pork and offals well.
You have probably heard of Alcohol hepatitis. This often results from several years of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. So, if you are the party after party type, beware, you may already unknowingly have alcohol hepatitis and as you get older, it will begin to show. Stopping drinking before the symptoms start to show usually allows the liver to recover, otherwise, your liver cells will eventually die, sending your liver into failure, and turning into liver cancer.
It is important to note that while many people with chronic hepatitis B and C do not have symptoms, alcohol worsens the damage from the virus and leads to faster liver destruction.
By Dr. Miriam O. Laker-Oketta
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