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Hepatitis Prevention – although acute (sudden and limited) HEPATITIS infections are on the decline in the United States, chronic hepatitis infections (long-term) have reached epidemic proportions. Nearly a third of the US population has had hepatitis A INFECTION, an acute form of the disease that is sudden and limited. While the numbers of new cases are dropping each year because of vaccination and education efforts, hepatitis A remains a significant health threat because it can so easily be transmitted from one person to another. Hepatitis A spreads via oral–fecal contamination as a consequence of failing to wash the hands after using the bathroom. This spreads the VIRUS to items the infected person touches. A significant source of infection is contaminated uncooked foods such as salads. Hepatitis A outbreaks can sweep through schools, day care centers, cruise ships, prisons, and other environments in which large groups of people are in close contact.
Another 7 percent of Americans have chronic forms of hepatitis, either hepatitis B or hepatitis C. The rate of infection for chronic hepatitis is highest among injectable DRUG users and homosexual men (because of bodily fluid contact). Health-care and public safety workers are also at high risk for infection as a result of occupational exposures. However, hepatitis is so pervasive that anyone can become infected without being aware they have been exposed. Some people can carry hepatitis without themselves being sick and usually do not know they are carriers. Yet they can spread the hepatitis virus to others.
Of the five most common hepatitis viruses, fecal–oral contact is the primary infectious route for two: hepatitis A and hepatitis E. These forms of hepatitis are generally acute (sudden and limited). Blood and body fluid contact, such as via sexual intercourse and shared needles among injectable drug users, spread hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Hepatitis D is a risk only for people infected with hepatitis B, as it can replicate only by “hijacking” the hepatitis B virus’s genetic material.
Hepatitis C is particularly insidious because the infection can take 20 to 30 years to progress enough to generate symptoms. A blood test can detect antibodies after the virus has been in the body for about six weeks, however, and health experts recommend that people who are at risk for hepatitis C be tested. People at highest risk for having hepatitis C infection are those who may have engaged in high-risk behaviors as long as 20 or 30 years ago. About 4 million Americans have chronic hepatitis C infection, nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population, and epidemiologists believe they may reflect only about 30 to 40 percent of those who are actually infected.
Hepatitis is a significant public health issue. Acute hepatitis sickens thousands of people each year and can be particularly serious, even fatal, in children and in people who are IMMUNOCOMPROMISED. Chronic hepatitis is the leading cause of LIVER FAILURE and leading reason for LIVER TRANSPLANTATION in the United States. A secondary public health concern is that a person who has had hepatitis, or who has chronic hepatitis, cannot donate blood. This has the potential to severely limit the availability of blood and blood products for transfusion.
Key Measures for Preventing Hepatitis
- Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water.
- Do not share food, drinks, or eating utensils.
- Receive the hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations.
- Do not use injectable drugs.
- Use condoms during sexual intercourse, and limit sexual partners.
- Use barrier precautions (masks and gloves) to protect against INFECTION from occupational exposure.
- Receive prophylactic treatment (immunoglobulin injection) after suspected exposure.
See also SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE (STD) PREVENTION.