Although vaccines are largely available now, many people at an increased risk for hepatitis could be infected with the virus and not know, leading to an increased chance of liver damage and other health complications.
"You can carry it in your body for a long time and not know you have it," says Sarah Knorr, family nurse practitioner with Northwest Health Services. "It can be doing damage to your liver. Some of the things that can happen are cirrhosis of the liver, and in severe cases, it can cause liver cancer."
Hepatitis is thought to be responsible for about 2.7 percent of deaths worldwide, especially hepatitis B and hepatitis C. As much as 78 percent of liver cancers worldwide are related to chronic infections with hepatitis B and C.
Vaccinations against hepatitis A and hepatitis B exist, and treatment for hepatitis C is currently about 95 percent effective, but testing is vital, Knorr says. May is Hepatitis Awareness Month.
"There's not a vaccine for hepatitis C," Knorr says, "and that is something that been advertised a lot because it's important especially for baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C. They, in particular, need to have a one-time check."
Baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1965, are at a five times greater risk for having hepatitis C than other age groups. An American Journal of Preventative Medicine report found that 13.8 percent of boomers had been tested by 2015, just two years after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made the recommendation.
"It's not understood exactly, but there are several reasons," Knorr says of the increased risk. "Equipment maybe wasn't cleaned as well back then because we didn't know. There wasn't as much use of standard precautions as far as wearing gloves or being more careful around bodily fluids."
A lack of knowledge before the virus was identified in 1989 lead to infections through medical procedures and transfusions before screening techniques were developed. Shared drug needles and, to a lesser extent, sexual transmission, also plays a role in the spread of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Age, medical history, sexually transmitted diseases, drug use, international travel and other factors can help determine a person's risk for hepatitis. A primary-care provider can determine if and when testing is appropriate, Knorr, who works with hepatitis testing and treatment, says.
"Everybody should get checked because you may not know you have symptoms until it's too late," she says.
Prevention and treatment
Vaccines currently exist for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. In 2014, there were 1,239 cases of hepatitis A, an acute illness, reported in the United States, resulting in 76 reported deaths. Hepatitis A is spread orally, through contaminated water or food.
"That could be not so common locally, but if you are traveling abroad, it's important that you get the hepatitis A vaccine," Knorr says.
Hepatitis B can be an acute or chronic infection and is transmitted by direct exposure to contaminated blood or semen. It is thought that the actual rate of acute hepatitis B is almost 6.5 times higher than the reported rate of 2,953 new cases in 2014. An estimated 800,000 to 2 million people were living with chronic hepatitis B as of 2016.
Vaccines are available against hepatitis A and B and are generally given starting between the ages of 12 and 23 months in a series of vaccines months apart. Hepatitis D and E exist worldwide but are uncommon in the United States.
An estimated 2.7 to 3.9 million people have chronic hepatitis C in the United States, and 2,194 new acute cases of hepatitis C were reported in 2014, a small portion of the 30,000 estimated new cases for the same year. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, which is why it's important to test and get treatment if necessary, Knorr says.
"There is a greater than 95 percent cure rate with hepatitis C with the new drugs out," she says. "The drugs are a much simpler regimen. It's not going to be IVs or anything like that. It's going to be a pill once a day, typically for three months."
Insurance often covers the testing and treatment, and Northwest Health Services also can provide assistance in getting reduced cost testing and treatment, Knorr says. Northwest Health Services can be reached at 816-232-6818.
"I have had some patients who have not wanted to get tested because they say 'I'm not that type of person.' There is potentially a stigma associated with it because it can be associated with those people who are maybe IV drug users or who lead a high-risk lifestyle," Knorr says. "But those baby boomers, they may not have led a high risk lifestyle and could still be at risk."