“Get tested and get treated” is the message on World Hepatitis Day
With this Saturday marking World Hepatitis Day, the Public Health Agency (PHA), is encouraging those who think they may be at risk of having the infection to get tested and treated.
Viral hepatitis kills 4,000 people every day worldwide and, although not very common in Northern Ireland, it is estimated 400 million people across the globe are infected.
There are five main types of viral hepatitis, but types B and C lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. The hepatitis B and C viruses are spread by contact with blood or bodily fluids of an infected person.
Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at PHA, explained: “Despite not being common in Northern Ireland, hepatitis B and C are extremely serious, potentially life-threatening infections.
“Hepatitis B tends to be contracted from mother to baby or from contact with infected blood in areas of the world where hepatitis B is more common. In Northern Ireland, new infections with hepatitis B tend to be more often from sexual contact.
“Hepatitis C is commonly associated with sharing needles or equipment for injecting drugs. It can also be spread by having had a tattoo or body piercing done using non-sterile equipment.
“We are encouraging people to come forward for testing if they could potentially be at risk of having contracted one or several types of hepatitis, for example if they have ever injected drugs, even if this was only once or some time ago.
“Testing is also recommended if you were born in, or had a blood transfusion in, a higher risk part of the world, which includes Eastern Europe and many parts of Asia, Africa and South America.”
Both hepatitis B and C are diseases that people can have for many years without developing any symptoms. However, they may be passed on to other people during this time and can lead to liver damage (cirrhosis) and liver cancer.
Dr Jessop added: “The treatments for hepatitis C are now so good they can cure nearly 100% of cases, so there is now no need to wait before you get treated. If you are treated straight away not only can you prevent your liver becoming damaged, but you can reduce the chance of spreading the disease to others.
“If you think you have been at risk of hepatitis, go to your GP and ask to be tested. It will only take 20 minutes and if you do have hepatitis you can get treated and cured. There is nothing to be scared of, the treatments have improved greatly in the past few years, and they have a much better success rate with no real side effects. There is no reason not to get tested.”