Each year on July 28th people from around the world come together to honor World Hepatitis Day – an annual observance established to raise awareness of viral hepatitis and its impact. Viral hepatitis is a silent epidemic, remaining largely unknown to the general public despite its status as one of the top ten infectious disease killers in the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 12 people, or about 500 million people, have chronic viral hepatitis worldwide. Furthermore, most people who are infected do not know they have it since many people do not show symptoms for years.
In the U.S. there are three major types of viral hepatitis – Hepatitis A (HAV), B (HBV) and C (HCV):
- Hepatitis A, which is usually spread through ingestion of food, drinks or objects that are contaminated by fecal matter.
- Hepatitis B, which is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids (i.e. saliva, semen and vaginal fluid) of an infected person.
- Hepatitis C, which is mainly spread through blood-to-blood contact. After progressing, hepatitis viruses may cause inflammation of the liver, cirrhosis and liver cancer.
While viral hepatitis is devastating to all those it impacts, it is particularly pervasive in Hispanics and older adults. According to the Office of Minority Health, Hispanics had the second highest rate of Hepatitis among all ethnic groups in 2010. Compared to non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics are two times more likely to be diagnosed with Hepatitis A and twice as likely to die from viral hepatitis. Additionally, Hispanics ages 40 and over are 30% more likely to acquire Hepatitis B in comparison to their non-Hispanic White peers. Regardless of racial/ethnic background, older adults are also at a higher risk of being infected with viral hepatitis. As a result, the CDC recommends that all Americans born from 1945-1965 get tested for Hepatitis C, since this age group is five times more likely to have the virus than other groups.
Significantly, individuals with viral hepatitis may have a high risk of acquiring HIV as a co-infection or developing cancer. Hepatitis B and C are transmitted the same way as HIV – through unprotected sexual contact, injection drug use and high risk tattooing. As a result, about one-third of people living with HIV are often co-infected with either Hepatitis B or C. For those who are co-infected, viral hepatitis progresses faster and causes more liver-related health problems, due to the weakened immune system caused by HIV. Additionally, liver disease, related to Hepatitis B and C, has become the leading cause of non-AIDS-related deaths in people with HIV. Furthermore, chronic Hepatitis B and C can lead to liver cancer. As a result, approximately 15,000 Americans die each year from liver cancer or chronic liver disease associated with viral hepatitis.
While viral hepatitis is serious, it can be prevented by taking certain precautions, including preventative vaccines for Hepatitis A and B. Additional precautions include using condoms during sexual intercourse, wearing gloves when handling body fluids, avoiding contaminated water and food, and avoiding used needles and sharing certain personal items such as razors or toothbrushes.
On this year’s World Hepatitis Day, the National Hispanic Council on Aging encourages everyone to break the silence surrounding viral hepatitis. Use this day to get tested, seek treatment and educate yourself, your loved ones and community. For more information about viral hepatitis and World Hepatitis Day, please click here.