ABC's of Hepatitis
News of recent hepatitis A outbreaks in restaurants has focused attention on just one of three varieties of this liver disease. The others, hepatitis B and C, are not as easily transmitted but can be more dangerous.
Hepatitis A, which is rarely chronic or responsible for lasting liver damage, is spread by fecal or oral transmission. Outbreaks usually occur in daycare centers or when infected foodhandlers contaminate food. Long-term vaccines are not yet available for A, but an injection of gamma globulin within two weeks of exposure can guard against immediate infection.
Hepatitis B is passed, like AIDS, through exchange of contaminated bodily fluids. The sexual partners and babies of infected people, intravenous drug users and health care workers are most at risk. Only five percent of adults ever develop life-threatening chronic liver disease or cancer, but nearly 90 percent of infected infants become silent carriers of the virus.
To halt the growing spread of hepatitis B, public health officials now recommend that all children be vaccinated, and that every pregnant woman be tested for hepatitis B during her third trimester. If tests are positive, a vaccine that's safe for both mother and fetus is available.
Hepatitis C, discovered in 1988, is a puzzle to researchers, who aren't sure how it's transmitted and haven't been able to come up with a vaccine. Hepatitis C, though, does respond to treatment if caught early.