Greater awareness among the public about hepatitis — from early detection to prevention, diagnosis and treatment — is crucial in reducing the risk of liver cancer, an Emirati doctor said.
Dr Saeed Al Marzooqi, consultant hepatologist at the Sheikh Shakhabout Medical City, stressed the importance of early detection and vaccination through awareness drives and initiatives.
Explaining the disease, its symptoms, and its types, Dr Al Marzooqi noted that hepatitis virus infection can lead to both acute and chronic liver disease, including cancer.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a medical term used to describe an inflammation of the liver, a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is significantly inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Hepatitis viruses are a common cause of hepatitis. Other infections, toxic substances like alcohol, certain drugs, and autoimmune diseases can also cause the disease.
What are the symptoms of viral hepatitis?
Most patients with viral hepatitis do not have symptoms and are unaware that they are infected. Symptoms can appear anytime from two weeks to six months after exposure and can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured stools, joint pain, and jaundice. In many cases, the patient can have chronic viral hepatitis for many years without symptoms until developing advanced liver scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer.
What are the different types of viral hepatitis?
There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. Some of them can cause short-term infections lasting from weeks to months (acute hepatitis), while others can cause long-lasting inflammation often without symptoms (chronic hepatitis).
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection most commonly contracted through contaminated food or water. You can also get the virus through contact with a contaminated person or object. Symptoms usually appear within a few weeks, with mild cases not requiring specialised treatment and most recovering fully with no complications. Vaccines to protect against hepatitis A are recommended for children and are given in two doses, six months apart. Similar to hepatitis A, hepatitis E is another virus that can cause self-limiting hepatitis.
Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection if undetected and not properly followed, and infections can become chronic, lasting more than six months. Having chronic hepatitis B increases your risk of developing liver failure, liver cancer, or cirrhosis (advanced scarring of the liver). Adults usually recover; however, infants and children are more likely to develop a chronic infection. The virus is usually spread through sexual contact, sharing needles and razors, and contaminated tattoo needles, and can be passed from mother to child during childbirth.
Although there is a vaccine that prevents hepatitis B, there is no cure. For patients with active Hepatitis B, long-term treatments are available which are effective in controlling the virus.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that, if left untreated, can cause serious liver damage. The virus can cause inflammation of the liver, leading to the development of cirrhosis and potential liver failure.
Hepatitis C infection can be transmitted similarly to Hepatitis B. Up to 85 per cent of patients who acquire the hepatitis C virus will develop long-term (chronic) infection.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, so treatment is aimed at removing the virus from the body and preventing liver damage and cancer. Unlike hepatitis B, a hepatitis C cure is available. It is in the form of pills taken daily between 2 to 3 months, with success rates exceeding 95 per cent. They are usually safe with minimal side effects.
How many people are affected by viral hepatitis?
More than 350 million people are living with viral hepatitis worldwide. Additionally, over a million people lose their lives each year because of conditions related to acute hepatitis and chronic infection that cause liver cancer and cirrhosis. Chronic hepatitis B and C infections are also leading causes of liver cancer.
What can be done to prevent viral hepatitis?
When it comes to prevention, there are several ways you can reduce your chances of getting hepatitis:
- Get the vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
- Practise good personal hygiene such as thorough hand-washing with soap and water.
- Don’t use an infected person’s personal items.
- Take precautions when getting any tattoos or body piercings.
- Take precautions when travelling to areas of the world with poor sanitation.
- Drink bottled water when travelling.
- It is recommended that hepatitis B and C is tested at least once in most adult patients.
If you were ever diagnosed with hepatitis B, make sure that you follow up with a gastroenterologist or hepatologist every six months even if you did not require treatment in the past. Your doctor will order blood tests to monitor the virus activity. In some patients, a liver ultrasound will be required every six months to look for signs of early liver cancer that can be cured.