As we are fast approaching Hepatitis Awareness Week from 26 July – 01 August, with World Hepatitis Day on 28 July, we are encouraging those at risk to get tested and those living with hepatitis C, to take advantage of new, highly effective and easy-to-take medications available from your doctor or sexual health services.
Even though there’s about a half of a million Australians living with hepatitis, there is still a lot of bullshit information and stigma floating around about those who have contracted hepatitis. The stigma is from a lack of knowledge about how it is transmitted. It is also driven by stereotyping and negative assumptions of those who acquire the hepatitis virus. Further, fear of infection and lack of knowledge regarding transmission also push people into social isolation.
There’s really no need for any of that, as hepatitis can be treated and managed. Most people chronically infected with hepatitis can expect to live long and healthy lives.
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis simply means inflammation of the liver. While we usually think of hepatitis viruses, anything that causes inflammation or damage to the liver can be considered as a form of hepatitis. While you’ve probably heard of hepatitis B or C, there is also hepatitis A, D and E, all of which are very different viruses. The thing all five have in common is that they can cause mild to very severe liver damage.
Hepatitis A is spread by contaminated food and water, and from person to person via traces of faecal matter (poo). This doesn’t mean you’re gross or feral, it just means you’ve picked up a microscopic trace of poo, usually in household settings. Although hepatitis A can cause significant illness, the body usually recovers without treatment and becomes immune to future infections.
Hepatitis B is the most widespread form of viral hepatitis worldwide. It’s also the leading cause of liver cancer. Around 250,000 Australians are living with chronic hepatitis B, with over 20,000 thought to be Indigenous people. New infections with hepatitis B remain three times as common in Indigenous people as in non-Indigenous Australians. Hepatitis B can be transmitted from person to person through sex or blood-to-blood contact. But most people living with chronic (long-term) hepatitis B acquired it at birth from their mother, or early in life.
Hepatitis C is the most common cause of viral hepatitis in Australia with an estimated 250,000 people living with chronic infection. Hepatitis C is also the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants nationally. Most hepatitis C infections in Australia are transmitted through injecting practices. Around 80% of people infected with hepatitis C develop chronic infection; those who do clear the infection naturally remain susceptible to future infections.
Hepatitis D is a linked virus that can only infect people who also have hepatitis B, while hepatitis E is spread through contaminated food and water.
Signs and symptoms
Sometimes there are no symptoms of hepatitis in the first weeks after infection. But when they happen, the symptoms of types A, B, and C may include fatigue, nausea, dark urine, poor appetite, belly pain, pale poo, a mild fever, or yellow skin or eyes (jaundice). When hepatitis B and C become chronic, they may cause no symptoms for years. However, by the time there are any warning signs, the liver may already be damaged.
Who Should Be Tested for Hepatitis?
Testing is important for anyone with the risk factors mentioned, particularly people who inject drugs and people who have had multiple sexual partners. However, a person should also consider getting testing if you have had:
- a tattoo or piercing in an unregulated facility with low hygiene standards
- shared razors or other personal items with someone who is living with hepatitis C
- shared drug-injecting equipment, such as needles and syringes
- had a needlestick injury
- been born to a mother living with hepatitis
Say no to fear and stigma, and yes to testing and treatment.