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Millions of Americans are living with hepatitis in its many forms and do not know that they have it. May being Hepatitis Awareness Month is a good time to remind more Americans to get tested.
Hepatitis is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver, which over time can cause severe damage. The most common types are hepatitis A, B and C but hepatitis can also be caused by our immune system (autoimmune hepatitis).
Hepatitis A and B are less common in the United States than hepatitis C. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2011 there were an estimated 2,700 hepatitis A infections in the United States. The virus can be contracted by food or water that has been contaminated by fecal matter. Hepatitis A usually resolves itself without specific treatment.
An estimated 1.2 million Americans are living with hepatitis B; more then half are Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Hepatitis B can be spread through blood, sexual contact and the sharing of needles and can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby at birth. Most cases of hepatitis B will also resolve spontaneously. However, in some cases the virus is not cleared and chronic liver disease results. The good news is that there are treatments that can suppress the virus.
Hepatitis C has emerged as a major public health issue in the United States. More than 3.2 million Americans are infected according to the CDC, yet as many as 75% are not aware that they carry the virus. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver failure and end-stage liver disease and is a major cause of liver transplants in the United States.
Risk factors for hepatitis C include blood transfusions prior to 1992, tattoos, body piercings and IV drug use (even one time). People born between 1945 and 1965 should be tested.
“This past year marked a significant milestone in the treatment of the most common form of the virus -- hepatitis C. With the FDA approval of new drug treatments and more on the horizon, we can cure the majority of patients with hepatitis C,” says Tom Nealon, national board chair of the American Liver Foundation. “However, without testing, we are missing a great number of Americans who can be spared the devastating effects of this liver disease. National Hepatitis Month allows us to support those with a diagnosis of all forms of hepatitis while reinforcing the importance of testing at-risk populations,” he adds.
"There is no need to fear results from getting tested for hepatitis. If you receive a positive diagnosis, there are treatments that can completely eradicate the virus from your body," said Coleman Smith, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota and a member of ALF's national medical advisory committee. "It is important to know your risk factors for the various strains and ask your doctor to test you. Early treatment can prevent more serious liver disease down the road.”
The American Liver Foundation is the source of information on hepatitis, including a dedicated website for hepatitis C (hepc123.org), as well as general liver health information on its liverfoundation.org website and through its national toll-free helpline: 1-800-GO-LIVER (465-4837). Please look to us for any questions you may have about all forms of liver disease.