July 28, 2011 was designated as the first World Hepatitis Day by the World Health Organization. Viral hepatitis affects more than 500 million people worldwide, millions more are infected every year, and more than 1 million people die from hepatitis each year. Hepatitis can cause premature death due to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Hepatitis is caused by at least five viruses. Hepatitis A and E can be spread by food or water contaminated with feces. Hepatitis B, C, and D can be spread by contaminated blood and bodily fluids including by shared needles, through blood transfusions, or through sexual contact. Hepatitis B and C can cause liver cirrhosis and can lead to liver cancer.
The Hepatitis B virus was first discovered in 1967. Since then, hepatitis vaccines have become available for Hepatitis B (which is available in 178 countries, is credited with saving more than 700,000 lives in each generation, and is effective in preventing Hepatitis D because Hepatitis D requires the presence of Hepatitis B to cause infection), the vaccine for Hepatitis A has been available since the 1990s, and it is expected that new vaccines will soon be available for Hepatitis E (Hepatitis E is responsible for many deaths of pregnant women in Asia and Africa due to the hepatitis virus being present in contaminated water sources). Efforts to find an effective vaccine for Hepatitis C have been unsuccessful so far.
Advances in tests for hepatitis viruses have resulted in a greatly safer blood supply in the U.S. by substantially reducing the risk for Hepatitis B and C infections due to blood transfusions. Better screening and treatment for Hepatitis B and C have reduced the deaths due to the hepatitis viruses. Recent treatment therapies for Hepatitis C can eliminate the virus in 3 out of 4 people treated.
It is thought that most people in the U.S. who have hepatitis do not know that they are infected, resulting in those people not receiving the benefits of treatment and possibly increasing their risk of infecting other people. In less developed countries, advances against hepatitis can be made by improving the safety of the food and water supplies, by providing every newborn with a dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine, by providing every child with three doses of the vaccine, and by providing appropriate services for drug users who use needles.
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