To shine a light on a deadly disease, World Hepatitis Day on July 28 gives this chronic liver infection the attention it deserves.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people worldwide are afflicted with hepatitis B (240 million) or hepatitis C (80 million). The infections contribute to approximately 1.4 million death annually, numbers similar to deaths caused by tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria. World Hepatitis Day calls attention to these staggering numbers, but also shows hope that the disease can be eliminated.

In fact, the Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis is an aggressive goal to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. Like other communicable infections, hepatitis is hard to control.

According to the sector report, the five strains of hepatitis infection (A, B, C, D, and E) can occur through different transmissions. Hepatitis B and C are blood-borne and can be spread through tainted medical practices, injections including drug use, mother-to-child at birth, and sexual contact. Hepatitis D is also blood-borne and only infects those with a co-infection of hepatitis B, so is preventable. Hepatitis A and E are spread through unsanitary food and water conditions. Neither of these causes a chronic infection and so do not pose a threat of long-term liver damage including cirrhosis and liver cancer, but can be miserable to cope with.

Luckily, hepatitis A, B, and E are preventable with a vaccine series (and hepatitis D by proxy of receiving the B vaccine series). There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, although it is preventable and new treatments can cure up to 90 percent of infections.

The challenge comes because hepatitis infections have not received the traditionally high attention of other communicable and preventable, although equally deadly diseases. Many people aren’t aware they are infected and can spread the disease unknowingly, and access to affordable, preventative vaccines and health care, accurate medical information, and government funding is spotty at best in some parts of the world.

Nurses can use World Hepatitis Day to inform patients about hepatitis infections and about their risk for infection. Remind them that hepatitis infects people globally and can happen in anyone—even sharing a razor with someone who is infected puts you at risk because of the potential exposure to bodily fluids. Talk to patients who might be at obvious risk (those who received blood transfusions, those who could be traveling to countries that might have active A and E problems, or those who have been IV drug users at any point in their lives or sexual partners of past or present IV drug users). Also have conversations with those whose risk is less obvious (those who might not discuss unsafe sex practices, who could have been infected during an unsanitary tattoo or piercing).

Discuss topics like prevention through available vaccines and safe practices around sexual activity, preventative hygiene habits (not sharing razors, toothbrushes), and drug use. Also be willing to guide patients to available testing and have some information about current treatments.

With such a push to end the threat of hepatitis across the globe, nurses can do their part from the close relationships they develop with patients. The earlier hepatitis infection is detected, the greater likelihood of starting treatment that can be potentially life-saving.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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