Hepatitis Day Zeroes In on “Silent Epidemic”

Rock legend Gregg Allman suffers from hepatitis C and is involved in awareness campaigns about the disease.
Rock legend Gregg Allman suffers from hepatitis C and is involved in awareness campaigns about the disease.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington, DC
July 24, 2013

Hepatitis, in its five different forms, is the deadliest disease you hear very little about, but July 28 is a day to “know it” and “confront it,” according to the designated theme of World Hepatitis Day.

This viral disease includes five major types: hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. All cause inflammation of the liver, but strains B and C can become a lifelong, chronic infection. Globally, about 1.4 million people die from chronic viral hepatitis each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), while hundreds of millions carry some form of the disease unknowingly.

WHO, joined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other interested organizations, characterizes hepatitis as a major global health threat and even “a silent epidemic.”

According to WHO estimates, 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A can occur every year, while 240 million people live with chronic infection from hepatitis B, and 150 million carry hepatitis C. The dangerous thing, WHO reports, is that many infected people don’t know they have the virus.

“They are therefore at high risk of developing severe chronic liver disease and can unknowingly transmit the virus to other people,” according to a WHO press release.

While the various strains of the virus are related and can all damage the liver, they are different in their means of transmission and the potential long-term course of the disease.

Hepatitis A and E occur worldwide sporadically in epidemics set off by ingestion of food or water contaminated by fecal matter from infected persons. These strains of the disease are most commonly associated with unsafe water supplies, inadequate sanitation and poor hygienic conditions. While they can cause serious, sometimes fatal, disease, they do not cause lifelong illness.

Hepatitis B, C and D are caused most often by contact with infected body fluids from other persons. The common routes for transmission are contaminated blood or blood products, contaminated equipment used in medical procedures, from mother to baby at birth or family member to child, and sexual contact.

Jaundice — a stark yellow tint to skin and eyes — is a classic symptom of hepatitis; others include dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Some infected people experience no symptoms, diagnosis can be missed, and the virus can cause liver damage in people who never knew they were infected.

Hepatitis B is the only strain of the disease for which a vaccine has been developed and is widely available.

In recognition of World Hepatitis Day, WHO released its first hepatitis survey of 126 countries, finding that 37 percent of the countries have national strategies for viral hepatitis, and more work is needed in treating the disease.

In the United States, the CDC has recently launched Know Hepatitis B, a national, multilingual communication campaign aiming to increase testing and awareness of this common strain of the virus. The multimedia campaign is being conducted in English, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, targeting what is known to be an unusually high rate of infection among Asian Americans.

The United States is also working to boost awareness and knowledge about the disease with recognition of Hepatitis Awareness Month in May. As part of this campaign, CDC created an online testing tool which assesses your risk of hepatitis exposure with a five-minute questionnaire.