You wouldn’t want to take your chances with the hepatitis family – Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E: they’re a dangerous bunch. They’re out to inflict pain and suffering on you and those you hold dear. They cause viral hepatitis – infections caused by viruses that directly attack the liver.
All members of the hepatitis family can cause acute, or short-term, viral hepatitis. In particular, Hepatitis B, C, and D viruses can also cause chronic hepatitis, in which the infection is prolonged, sometimes lifelong. When this disease is prolonged, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
In addition, the disease has developed a variety of pathways to attack your liver. Hepatitis A for instance spreads primarily through the faecal-oral route, and can reach you via contaminated water and food. On the other hand, type B and C can spread through contact with infected blood, fluid exchange during sexual intercourse or needles, as well from mother to child. Then there is hepatitis D which only occurs at the same time as hepatitis B infection or in people who are already afflicted with hepatitis B. Hepatitis E, takes after hepatitis A, in that it spreads through food or water contaminated by the faeces from an infected person.
This disease poses a great disease burden on the world. It is estimated that globally 1 in 12 individuals is living with either chronic hepatitis B or C. This puts viral hepatitis as more common than human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) yet public awareness is comparatively low and many of those infected are unaware that they carry the virus. In Malaysia, an estimated 5% of the population (1.4 million people) are affected with chronic hepatitis B and nearly 2% of the population has chronic hepatitis C. These individuals are at high risk of death from liver cirrhosis (scarring), liver failure and liver cancer.
As blood is a primary pathway for the spread of viral hepatitis, Malaysia introduced hepatitis screening for blood donations in 1991. This step was undertaken to ensure that it did not spread to more of the population via blood transfusions.
Thankfully we have vaccines that can protect against types A and B. However, we do not have this privilege with types C, D and E yet. But with the right information, you will be able to be on the lookout for viral hepatitis.