Viral hepatitis: prevention is better than cure
Hepatitis Question: Are there ways to prevent viral hepatitis? Answer: Yes — although these differ depending on the form of the virus, such as vaccinations to prevent hepatitis A and safe sex to prevent hepatitis B.
The theme of this year's World Hepatitis Day is 'prevention'. That's a vital message to get across in the fight against viral hepatitis, says Andrew Langford, Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust, because the B and C forms of the virus are potentially deadly.
Hepatitis A is mainly a problem in those countries with poor hygiene and sanitation, so it's important to avoid drinking water in those areas (and avoid ice cubes in drinks, too) and only eat fruit with a skin that you can peel off. For healthy adults there is a very good chance that the body will cure itself of hepatitis A; but anyone who is immune-compromised, because of age or other issues, may develop complications. “There is, however, a vaccination for this form of the virus,” says Langford. “When people are travelling to countries where poor hygiene maybe an issue, they should definitely have the vaccination, which is available from their GP or travel clinic.”
There is also a vaccination for hepatitis B, although this is not universally available and is currently only administered as a matter of course to clinical workers. “The UK is one of the few wealthy countries that does not have a universal hepatitis B vaccination programme,” says Langford. “We think that is regrettable. We need to have a universal vaccination programme for this form of the virus — and we need it as soon as possible.” Currently, to be given the vaccine, a person would have to convince their GP that they are at risk of being infected with hepatitis B.
To prevent hepatitis B, for which there is no cure, it's important to practise safer sex, says Langford, as this form of the virus is thought to be 100 times stronger than the HIV virus, is present in all the same body fluids and is relatively easy to catch. The advice, therefore, is to use condoms, and to avoid sharing needles and unlicenced tattoo parlours. “Even the straw that is used for snorting cocaine carries a risk of infection,” says Langford. “Because cocaine breaks down the membrane in your nose, it may leave blood on the straw which can infect others if it is then passed from person to person.”
If you like a traditional wet shave be careful where you get it from as the razor may not be sterile, and you don't know who has been shaved before you; while sharing toothbrushes carries a risk of infection because many of us suffer from bleeding gums. “These messages underline that we are all at risk of hepatitis B,” says Langford.
There is no vaccination against the hepatitis C virus, but new drugs do offer the potential of a cure. However, for drug users, prevention advice includes avoiding the sharing of needles. “With hepatitis C, the risks from unprotected sex are low,” says Langford, “although they are increased with risky sex, such as anything rough or anything which includes blood.”
Hepatitis D only occurs in people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus; so this can be prevented with the hepatitis B vaccine. Meanwhile, hepatitis E is mainly contracted through eating contaminated food.
Thanks to the UK's blood screening programme, we no longer have to worry about viral hepatitis infection from transfusions; although, if you are travelling abroad, it is worth finding out which areas have blood screening safeguards in place.
“If you are unfortunate enough to contract viral hepatitis, be aware that you are not immune to other types of liver damage,” warns Langford. “For example, hepatitis C increases the risk of liver failure or liver cancer.” If you are worried, the website loveyourliver.org.uk features a simple questionnaire about the three main causes of liver disease, including viral hepatitis, and information about what you should do if you are at risk of developing it.