Most people with viral hepatitis make a full recovery.
Others end up having it long-term and are at significant risk of developing liver cancer.
Viral hepatitis causes swelling and inflammation of the liver. It is often initiated by infection with hepatitis A, B, C or E virus.
All four viruses produce a short term infection with some producing symptoms like fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and jaundice (yellowing of the skin).
'Hepatitis' derives from the Greek hêpar, meaning "liver", and -itis, meaning "inflammation".
The virus kills around 1.4 million people every year.
Spotlight: Hepatitis in India
Hepatitis: Key facts
PEOPLE KILLED BY HEPATITIS EACH YEAR
PRIMARY LIVER CANCERS CAUSED BY VIRAL HEPATITIS
PEOPLE STARTED ON HEPATITIS C TREATMENT BY MSF IN 2019
Our teams mainly treat four kinds of hepatitis
Hepatitis A is transmitted through food or water contaminated by an infected person’s faeces. Areas with poor hygiene and sanitation are commonly where the virus is found.
Infection most often occurs in children. Hepatitis A usually causes only a short term infection and is very rarely fatal. Most people can clear the virus on their own without needing treatment. Once recovered, some people develop a lifelong immunity.
Hepatitis B is transmitted by contact with an infected person’s blood or other body fluids. Hepatitis B can cause a long-term, or chronic, infection leading to a high risk of developing liver cancer and scarring of the liver, or cirrhosis. Both conditions can be fatal, with hepatitis B killing around 780,000 people a year.
Hepatitis C is transmitted by contact with an infected person’s blood, often through the use of unsterilised needles.
Most people infected with hepatitis C do not present with symptoms and the infection can remain undiagnosed until irreversible liver damage occurs and a liver transplant is needed.
It is estimated that 71 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C. The disease kills an estimated 400,000 people each year, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries where there is little or no access to diagnosis and treatment.
Hepatitis E is transmitted by ingesting water contaminated by an infected person’s faeces. Outbreaks are often documented in places with poor sanitation, like camps for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Hepatitis E commonly causes only a mild short-term illness.
Pregnant women are more likely to develop severe liver damage and in some cases, the virus can be fatal. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) provides resources to battling and preventing hepatitis E in places such as Chad and Kenya.
How is hepatitis treated?
Short-term hepatitis A, B, and E infections do not often require treatment, but patients can be given supportive care like administering fluids if needed.
For chronic hepatitis B infection, antiviral drugs are used to reduce the risk of severe liver damage and increase chances of survival. But treatment is not accessible in many resource-poor settings.
Chronic hepatitis C infection is treated with pegylated interferon, an expensive and burdensome treatment. It can cause severe side-effects like depression, which often lead to people stopping treatment early.
Promising new oral treatments like sofosbuvir have been developed. They are more effective at combating the infection and do not produce as many side effects. However, these new drugs are unaffordable in resource-poor countries.
How can hepatitis be prevented?
All hepatitis virus infections are preventable.
Hepatitis A prevention relies on access to clean water and functioning sewage disposal systems. MSF provides water and sanitation specialists in places like refugee and displacement camps.
Vaccination is the most effective method to prevent hepatitis B infection. The vaccine is widely available and very safe. MSF has vaccinated against the virus in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia.
Hepatitis C prevention relies on reducing the risk of exposure to contaminated blood by promoting safe handling and cleaning of needles, as well as improving access to clean blood for transfusions.
Hepatitis E prevention relies on the same methods as hepatitis A, with MSF having responded to outbreaks of the virus in places like South Sudan.