Hepatitis A: The Disease to Convince People to Wash Their Hands

May 1, 2018

Most mothers implore their children to wash their hands, and few kids realize doing so could keep them from getting sick from a virus that spreads through contact with human feces.

Ewwww.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious viral infection of the liver, spread when someone contacts — and ingests — human feces infected with the virus. Dirty hands can spread the fecal matter — even in microscopic amounts — into food and drinks.

The disease can make a person very ill; sick enough that in some cases hepatitis A can be fatal.

“I’ve seen hepatitis A as a pediatrician, and it makes children incredibly sick,” said Ryan Van Ramshorst, MD, who cares for children in San Antonio and is a Texas Medical Association (TMA) physician leader.

Hepatitis A symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, yellowing of the skin and/or of the whites of the eyes, dark urine, pale stool, joint pain, itching, and loss of appetite. Someone could spread the disease without knowing they have it because symptoms might not appear until two to six weeks after swallowing contaminated food or drinks.

Some young children might not show symptoms at all. In other cases, symptoms can be severe and last for months.

No cure exists for hepatitis A, which attacks the liver (the word "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver). Physicians can only treat the symptoms.

In most cases, symptoms clear within six months and leave no permanent liver damage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1,390 people contracted hepatitis A nationwide in 2015, and 67 of them died. For those who aren't vaccinated, all it takes is something like one bad visit to the wrong restaurant to get really, really sick.

Any unvaccinated person can get hepatitis A — so it can spread easily from an infected person to family members, sexual partners, and close contacts.

The good news is that the number of hepatitis A cases in Texas dropped from 461 in 2005 to just 147 in 2015 (the most recent data available), according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That is because people are getting vaccinated.

“Thankfully, there is a vaccine that prevents hepatitis A,” said Dr. Van Ramshorst, who is a member of TMA’s Be Wise – ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel. He recommends it for his patients. Children 12 months of age can receive the first shot, and are eligible for a follow-up booster vaccine six to 12 months later to receive lifelong protection from the virus. Adults also can get the hepatitis A vaccine, and physicians and other health experts recommend the two-shot series six months apart for long-term protection.

Vaccines against the disease have been recommended for all U.S. schoolchildren since 2006. Today, those most at risk of getting hepatitis A are unvaccinated people over the age of 30 who visit a country with high rates of the disease. (People younger than age 30 likely received the vaccine as children.) The hepatitis A vaccine is safe and widely accepted, so immunization rates are high.

Find more information on hepatitis A and vaccinations on the TMA website.

This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases, and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see reports on measles and human papillomavirus (HPV).

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 112 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. Be Wise — Immunize is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families.

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.

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TMA Contacts:  Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org

Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org

Connect with TMA on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Check out MeAndMyDoctor.com for interesting and timely news on health care issues and policy.

Last Updated On

May 01, 2018

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