World Hepatitis Day is July 28, 2017. This global day of awareness highlights the world’s health organizations’ campaign to eradicate hepatitis B and C by the year 2030. Hepatitis is a virus that inflames the liver, impairs its normal function, and can lead to cirrhosis. There are five strains of hepatitis, but hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States. Of great concern to caregivers and loved ones, nearly 75% of all Americans with hepatitis C are Baby Boomers. It’s possible to live with hepatitis C for many years without ever experiencing symptoms, so getting tested for hepatitis C is crucial for everyone born between 1945 and 1965. Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones need to know the risks of hepatitis C, the possible treatments, and the ways to live carefully with this all-too-prevalent disease.
Doctors aren’t sure why the Baby Boomer population is more than five times as likely to carry hepatitis C than any other cohort of adults in the U.S. Theories include: the fact that the heyday of transmission for hep C during the 1960s-1980s coincided with the twenties and thirties of Boomers; infection prevention and precautions were still developing in the pre-AIDS era; and stringent screening of blood, organs and clotting factor for viruses wasn’t in place before the early 1990s. Transmission of a virus that lays dormant for many years is all too easy, and hepatitis C typically reveals itself through damage to the liver. Symptoms like bleeding and bruising easily, fatigue, jaundice, fluid build-up, dark urine and poor appetite are the signs of liver damage caused by a hepatitis C infection. The CDC has a cheat sheet for Baby Boomers who want to know more about why they should get tested for hepatitis C.
There are five different hepatitis virus strains: A, B, C, D and E.
- Hepatitis A is spread through ingesting water or food infected by the feces of an infected person, or by eating raw shellfish fished out of water contaminated by sewage. In addition to practicing good food hygiene and sanitation, there is a vaccine for hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is a virus that clears the body after a few weeks of infection, but often lingering complications can result.
- Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, including blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluid. Mothers can infect children during childbirth, and adults can contract the virus through unprotected sex, sharing needles or nasty razors, and even at sketchy tattoo parlors. There is a vaccine for hepatitis B that can prevent transmission, and even protect infants if administered within 12 hours of birth. Antiviral drugs are also available that can slow the growth of and even eliminate the virus altogether. In America, Medicare covers the cost of the Hepatitis B vaccine under certain plans for those whose risk of infection is deemed medium to high.
- Hepatitis C is transmitted almost entirely through blood-to-blood contact. Infection during childbirth is rare, but sharing needles, razors, toothbrushes and even nail clippers with infected people is the best way to avoid transmission. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but certain drugs, as well as antivirals, have successfully treated hep C infections. Some genotypes respond better to these regimens than others.
- Hepatitis D is transmitted only through contact with infected blood, and is only contractible by people who already have hepatitis B. There is no vaccine for hepatitis D, and no antiviral therapy is currently in use. The best ways to prevent transmission of hepatitis D are avoiding risk factors like needles, razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers and sketchy tattoos, plus getting the hep B vaccine.
- Hepatitis E is also spread through ingesting water or food infected by the feces of an infected person, or by eating raw shellfish fished out of water contaminated by sewage. Practicing good food hygiene and sanitation is the best practice to avoid infection, for while there is a vaccine for hepatitis E, it’s not readily available. There’s no treatment for hepatitis E once contracted.
Hepatitis is a preventable, often treatable disease of the liver that affects a significant percentage of the Baby Boom generation, in most cases without their knowledge. Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones can arm themselves with knowledge, prevention strategies, and information to reduce or eliminate the terrible impacts of this virus.