Hepatitis is a Global Concern

World Hepatitis Day aimed to bring awareness and reduce spread of the virus

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Ask some people to name the world's most dangerous diseases and they just may tick off several illnesses that dominate health news headlines. Hepatitis also should be on their radar, according to organizers of World Hepatitis Day.

This past weekend on July 28, leaders of World Hepatitis Day raised awareness about hepatitis and provided information on how to keep this virus from spreading.

Hepatitis is a virus that attacks the liver, which is the body's second largest organ. The liver cleans toxins from the body and helps the body digest foods and drugs. It stores nutrients and releases them when the time is right. With hepatitis, the liver doesn't do these jobs as well. 

"Protect yourself against hepatitis."

The word "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At its worst, hepatitis can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and other serious liver ailments.

Worldwide, 500 million people are living long-term with hepatitis B or hepatitis C, World Hepatitis Day spokeswoman Hilary Campbell told dailyRx News. Hepatitis B and C are just two forms of a disease that takes five different forms.

Hepatitis is most widespread in parts of Asia, Africa and the Western Pacific, where as many 10 percent of people have the disease, according to Campbell. In Egypt, as many as 25 percent of people are infected in certain areas, Campbell said.

In the United States, an estimated 3.2 million people have long-term cases of hepatitis C, the most dangerous of five kinds of hepatitis, according to the most recent data available from the CDC. Between 75 percent and 85 percent of people infected with hepatitis C will develop chronic, or long-term, hepatitis C, the CDC reports.

The estimated number of people with hepatitis B is 800,000 to 1.4 million, according to the CDC. By 2010, reported rates of hepatitis A were the lowest they have been in 40 years, according to the CDC. In 2007, for example, there were 25,000 reports of new hepatitis A infections.

Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, extreme exhaustion and jaundice are some symptoms of hepatitis. When a person has jaundice, their eyes and skin have a yellowish tint, indicating that the liver is not processing blood cells correctly.

Often, hepatitis symptoms show after the disease has been in the body for a long time.

"Up to two-thirds of Americans living with viral hepatitis B [for example] have no idea they are infected. The longer people have it without detection, the more [the] chance it will be passed on and the harder it is to treat," said Campbell, who works at the World Hepatitis Alliance's London, England headquarters. The Alliance hosts World Hepatitis Day.

"Viral hepatitis is consistently overlooked at the global level," she added. "However, if you look at the figures, this apathy is completely baffling."

These are the five forms of hepatitis:

  • Hepatitis A, which, according to the CDC, generally lasts from a few weeks to up to six months. It does not lead to chronic, or ongoing, infection. Generally, it is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated by fecal matter, and by eating raw or undercooked food. It also can be contracted after coming into close contact with someone infected with hepatitis A. There is a vaccine for hepatitis A.
  • Cases of hepatitis B range from those lasting a few weeks to a serious long-term, chronic illness that can lead to liver disease or liver cancer. Usually, contact with infected blood, semen or other body fluids or having sex with a person infected by hepatitis B causes the disease. Also, the disease can spread from an infected mother to a newborn baby. This form of the hepatitis also is caused by sharing contaminated needles that are used to inject drugs. There is a vaccine for hepatitis B.
  • There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, which frequently becomes a chronic illness and can lead to liver cancer or liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis keeps the liver from performing its normal job. Hepatitis C is caused when a person has contact with the blood of an individual with hepatitis C. These days, hepatitis C primarily is passed from one person to the next through the sharing of contaminated needles used to inject drugs.
  • There is no vaccine for hepatitis D or hepatitis E, both of which are rare in the United States.

Hepatitis also can result from an autoimmune disorder which prevents the body's immune system from protecting it from a range of diseases.

In addition to the number of overall hepatitis cases in the United States, the CDC says the number of newly reported cases of hepatitis C increased from 802 in 2006 to 850 in 2010, the most recent year for which the CDC reported its figures on new cases. Those numbers represented a 6 percent increase.

During the same period, the number of reported cases of hepatitis B fell from 4,713 in 2006 to 3,350 in 2010. That represented a 29 percent decrease.

The number of hepatitis A cases dropped from 3,579 in 2006 to 1,670 in 2010, representing a 53 percent drop.

Those CDC figures, however, do not include reports from all 50 states.

World Hepatitis Day is one of seven international health observations that the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognizes and promotes, Campbell said. Part of the reason that WHO supports the event is because too few nations make curbing hepatitis a priority, she said.

"[Many] governments also choose not to dedicate resources to tackling viral hepatitis, choosing instead to dedicate resources to diseases which have a high profile and receive more funding on a global scale," Campbell said. "This sets off a cycle of inaction: no priority, no funding, no surveillance, no awareness, no priority. Even in countries with such high prevalence levels, there is a true sense of apathy around the disease."

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 26, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013