Viral hepatitis has been a global health issue for centuries, and it continues be a major health burden today. Here’s what you need to know about what it is and how it’s treated – and whether you should get tested.
What is Viral Hepatitis?
Viral hepatitis is an infectious condition of the liver, which in some cases, can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are transmitted by blood. If you had received a blood transfusion in the United States as recently as 40 years ago, you would have had a 10 percent chance of developing viral hepatitis. Thanks to tests developed by Barry Blumberg, co-recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the hepatitis B virus, and a legion of other researchers, viral hepatitis no longer threatens the nation’s blood supply.
World Hepatitis Day
Blumberg’s birthday, July 28, is honored by global health leaders as World Hepatitis Day. First held in 2011 (shortly after the death of this medical pioneer), this worldwide event has a different theme each year. The 2016 theme is “Know Hepatitis – Act Now.”
How Does Viral Hepatitis Impact Health?
Infection with hepatitis B and C viruses can trigger progressive liver damage. Chronic hepatitis B and C are the leading causes globally of cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The World Health Organization estimates that 400 million individuals (about 5 percent worldwide) are currently infected with hepatitis B or C. In the United States, hepatitis C is around three times more common than hepatitis B. According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic hepatitis C infection affects at least 1 percent of Americans, nearly 3 percent of individuals born from 1945 to 1965.
Most people with hepatitis B or C have no symptoms until liver malfunction develops after many years of infection; however, diagnosis through blood testing can guide infected individuals to successful treatment.
Making Progress to Treat & Cure Viral Hepatitis
The 21st century has ushered in a revolution in viral hepatitis treatment:
- Medications for hepatitis C now achieve cure in well over 90 percent of cases.
- Progress with hepatitis B has been slower but nonetheless impressive. Although cure is possible in up to 10 percent of individuals treated for hepatitis B, medications for hepatitis B are very well-tolerated and are highly effective in preventing liver malfunction.
- Gains in viral hepatitis prevention are mounting. In particular, hepatitis B vaccination is bringing down the number of new infections each year (an effective vaccine for hepatitis C has yet to be developed). For more information about viral hepatitis treatment and prevention, I recommend the American Liver Foundation website (liverfoundation.org).
Who Should be Tested for Hepatitis B or C Infection?
Three major groups at risk are:
- People who were born in hepatitis B or hepatitis C hotspots, such as sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia;
- People who have used illegal drugs by injection; and
- For hepatitis C, people born from 1945 to 1965.
The Centers for Disease Control website (www.cdc.gov) is an excellent resource for questions about viral hepatitis testing.
If Barry Blumberg were alive to celebrate his birthday this year, I am sure that he would have wished for a world that is free from viral hepatitis. Fulfillment of this wish is not out of our grasp. I have no doubt that science will continue to make strides in hepatitis virus vaccine and drug development. The challenge will be to eliminate global disparities in access to prevention and cure. In the meantime, each of us can take important steps by acting locally. If you think that you may have been exposed to a hepatitis virus or were born from 1945 to 1965, get tested. The world will thank you.
Steven Lidofsky, MD, PhD, gastroenterologist, is the Director of Hepatology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and a professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.