Every year on 28 July the World Health Organization (WHO) calls on countries to work together to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat by organising World Hepatitis Day. With this day in 2021 the WHO wants to raise awareness of viral hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that causes severe liver disease and liver cancer.
Hepatitis, sometimes shortened to Hep, is the term used to describe an inflammation of the liver, which is usually the result of a viral infection or liver damage caused by drinking too much alcohol. Only in the case of autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) is the cause unknown. AIH is a chronic condition where the immune system attacks and damages the liver.
On this day the WHO wants to raise awareness about the public health threat of the inflammation of the liver caused by a viral infection. There are five types of viral hep, which are usually diagnosed through blood tests. Some types will pass without any serious problems, yet others can be long-lasting (chronic) and cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), loss of liver function and in some cases liver cancer.
Short-term or acute hepatitis often has no noticeable symptoms, which means that you can be infected with hepatitis without knowing it. If symptoms do develop, they can include muscle and joint pain, a fever, loss of appetite, dark urine and the yellowing of the eyes and skin. If you have any symptoms that can be caused by hep and which aren't going away, you should go see a doctor.
Ridding the world of viral hepatitis can't wait because every 30 seconds someone in the world dies due to a hepatitis related illness. Meaning that getting rid of the viral health threat would positively affect millions of people.
The most common causes of viral hep are the five viruses after which the five types are named: Hepatitis A virus (HAV), Hepatitis B virus (HBV), Hepatitis C virus (HCV), Hepatitis D virus (HDV) and Hepatitis E virus (HEV). Both HAV and HEV are transmitted through contaminated food or water, while HBV, HCV and HDV are transmitted through blood or body fluids.
This virus is usually caught by eating or drinking something that has been exposed to the poo of an infected person and is most common in countries with poor sanitation. There is no specific treatment, other than to relieve symptoms. Luckily it usually passes within a few months and afterwards patients have lifelong immunity. There is a hepatitis a vaccine available, which is recommended when you are at high risk of infection or severe consequences of infection, or travelling to an area where the virus is common.
This type of hep virus is most commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth and delivery. In rare cases HBV can be spread through unprotected sex and injecting drugs. Most adults infected with this type are able to fight off the virus and fully recover from the infection within a couple of months, however most people infected as children develop a long-term infection, known as chronic hepatitis B.
Full vaccination is possible through 3 injections and recommended for people who travel to an area where the virus is common, such as southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, children born to mothers with the virus and men who have sex with men.
This hep virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact, such as through injection drug use, unsafe injection practices, unsafe healthcare and transfusion of unscreened blood. Though HCV often causes no noticeable symptoms, only 1 in 4 will fight off the infection and in the remaining cases it stays in the body for many years, causing chronic symptoms, cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. HCV can be treated with antiviral medication but there is currently no vaccine.
The fourth type of hep virus only affects those who are already infected with HBV, as it can't survive in the body without it. The virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact or sexual contact. While there is no vaccine specifically for HDV, the hep b vaccine does offer protection. Long-term infections with hep d and hep b can lead to an increased risk in developing serious problems such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Finally, there is HEV which is most often associated with drinking infected water or eating raw or undercooked pork meat or offal, but also with wild boar meat, venison and shellfish. For most people an infection with HEV is generally mild and short-term and can go untreated.
However, if pregnant women become infected, particularly those in the second or third trimester, they are at an increased risk of acute liver failure, foetal loss and death. Up to 20–25% of pregnant women can die if they get hepatitis E in third trimester. A vaccine against HEV has been developed, however it is currently only available in China.
This year, the WHO has chosen the theme "Hepatitis can't wait" to convey the urgency of efforts needed to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. You can learn more about the different types of hepatitis through the WHO's fact sheets and you can learn about the liver in our blog on your second largest organ.