An overview of hepatitis

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Massachusetts authorities announced Monday that 65 people have contracted acute hepatitis A in an outbreak affecting Massachusetts’ homeless population and those struggling with addiction. One person has died. The state Department of Pubic Health has urged local health departments to work with clinics and groups to educate those populations on the risks of contracting the disease and make vaccines available to reduce the spread.

Here is an overview of hepatitis, including the different types of the disease.

What is hepatitis?

“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. It is often caused by a virus. The most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

How do they differ?


Hepatitis A: Generally transmitted person-to-person through fecal-oral contact or through contaminated food or water. Hepatitis A infection does not cause chronic or long-term liver disease and is rarely fatal, but it can cause acute or sudden liver failure, which can lead to death. Symptoms include fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice, that usually resolve within two months.

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Hepatitis B: People pass the hepatitis B virus to each other by coming into contact with an infected person’s blood or saliva, by having unprotected sex, or by sharing syringes or drug-preparation equipment. Hepatitis B can be acute or chronic. Chronic hepatitis B can cause severe liver damage — including cirrhosis, when the liver stops working properly. This could lead to the need for a liver transplant.

Hepatitis C: This is transmitted through contact with an infected person’s blood. Most become infected by sharing needles or other equipment to inject or snort drugs and through unsafe transfusions and medical instruments. Many people with hepatitis C develop chronic liver disease and require a liver transplant. An estimated 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis, and it kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. There is no vaccine to prevent it.

What about vaccines and cures?

Vaccines can prevent hepatitis A and B; there is also a combination vaccine that guards against hepatitis A and B. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but new anti-viral drugs boast an effective cure rate above 95 percent. For some patients, getting health insurance to pay for the expensive treatment can be a challenge.

SOURCES: Massachusetts General Hospital; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; wire reports