Hepatitis is characterized by inflammation of the liver, generally caused by a viral infection. There are five main types of hepatitis virus, categorized as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis affects millions of people around the world and the European Centre for Disease Prevention records thousands of new cases every year in Europe. Therapy is usually non-specific (antivirals, immunosuppressants) and difficult.
Is it preventable?
Hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination and good hygiene. A vaccine against hepatitis B has been available since 1982 and is 95% effective in preventing infection and its chronic consequences. There is also a combination A+B vaccine. The vast majority of countries in the WHO Europe Region have implemented hepatitis B immunisation often incorporated in the routine vaccinations in infancy.
There are so far no vaccines against hepatitis C, D or E.
Hepatitis A is associated with poor hygiene and lack of hand-washing when preparing food. It is common in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south Asia. A specific risk is for non-immune travelers going to regions where hepatitis A is still widespread. There is no specific treatment but prevention strategies are based on improved sanitation standards and immunisation programmes, universal or targeting risk groups such as travelers or food handlers.
Hepatitis B is potentially life-threatening as it increases the risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is most prevalent in Asia and Africa where more than 10% of the population is said to be affected in some countries. While the infection is often transmitted through contact with contaminated body fluids such as blood or through contaminated instruments (surgical, dental, tattooing), the origin of the infection remains unknown in 30% of cases – hence the importance of universal anti-hepatitis B vaccination. About one third of the world’s population has been infected at some point in their lives resulting in some 350 million chronic hepatitis B carriers, according to the WHO.