Viral hepatitis is a group of diseases of the liver that can be caused by consuming contaminated water or food, using dirty needles or syringes, or practicing unsafe sex.
Scientists have identified six hepatitis viruses, but three - known as A, B and C - cause about 90 per cent of acute hepatitis cases in Canada. People infected with hepatitis can experience effects ranging from mild illness to serious liver damage. Many recover completely from an infection, while others become carriers of the disease and can spread it to others unknowingly. It is especially important for women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant to get tested for hepatitis.
Typical symptoms of acute hepatitis are:
- Appetite loss;
- Abdominal pain; and
- Jaundice (yellowish colour on the skin and eyeballs).
Major Types of Hepatitis
The hepatitis A virus (also known as HAV) is transmitted by eating or drinking something that is contaminated. Raw or undercooked food, food handled by people who have not washed their hands, or water contaminated by animal or human waste are often sources of the virus.
Hepatitis A can be prevented by a variety of vaccines adapted to individual needs. Contact your family physician, a local travel clinic or the Canadian Immunization Guide to find out more about these vaccines. Antibiotics are ineffective against HAV. Careful hand washing is one of the best preventive measures against hepatitis A.
- Is transmitted by eating or drinking something that is contaminated
- Can be prevented by hand washing and avoiding untreated water and suspect foods
- Has a vaccine
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the most prevalent hepatitis strain in the world. People with acute HBV or who are carriers can spread the virus by sexual contact or through blood and other body fluids.
Many people infected with the hepatitis B virus recover completely and develop lifelong immunity to the virus. Unfortunately, about 90 per cent of babies born to mothers who are hepatitis B carriers have a high chance of developing chronic HBV in later life, which can lead to diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.
Hepatitis B can be prevented by adopting safe sex practices, giving hepatitis B immune globulin to people who have had recent contact with infected body fluids (seven days or less) or immunization with a hepatitis B vaccine. See Getting Your Hepatitis B Shot for more information.
- Is the most prevalent strain of hepatitis
- Is transmitted through sexual contact, blood or bodily fluids
- Can be prevented by adopting safer sex practices
- Has a vaccine
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) was first characterized in 1989. Injection drug use is associated with at least half of HCV infections but you can also get HCV through tattooing and body piercing. In Canada, it is estimated that between 210,000 and 275,000 people are currently infected with hepatitis C, of whom only 30 per cent know they have the virus. At present there is no vaccine against HCV.
Up to 90 per cent of infected persons carry HCV indefinitely. Over the long term, they are at risk of such illnesses as profound fatigue, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
To prevent HCV, don't share needles or syringes, and use condoms during sexual intercourse.
- Can be prevented: don't share needles and adopt safer sex practices
- It is estimated that around 35% of those infected don't know they have the virus
- Has no vaccine
- If you think you are at risk (past or present), it is important to get tested
- Treatment may be an option
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