The Veterans Health Administration (VA) leads the country in hepatitis screening, testing, and treatment. More than 97,000 veterans have been cured of hepatitis C so far. Dr. Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967 and developed the first vaccine, which won him a Nobel Prize.
Viral hepatitis is caused by infection of one of five viruses, which includes hepatitis A, B, C, D or E. All hepatitis viruses can cause inflammation of the liver. Chronic hepatitis B and C can lead to liver damage called cirrhosis and increases the risk of liver cancer. People can live with chronic viral hepatitis for decades and be unaware of their infection before symptoms occur.
Hepatitis A and E are contagious and spread through contaminated food, water, or items touched by infected persons. Both hepatitis A and E are common in developing countries with inadequate water supply and sanitation. There is no FDA-approved vaccine for hepatitis E available in the United States, but there is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B is transmitted though contact with blood or other body fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis B vaccinations are available and very effective in preventing infection. There is no real cure for chronic hepatitis B; however, treatment is available that can delay or even prevent liver damage and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. At present, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, but research is ongoing. Treatments are available and are over 95% effective. They include daily oral medications that are easy to tolerate, have less side effects than prior treatments, and can be completed in two to three months.
Hepatitis D is transmitted through contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D occurs in people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus. People who are not already infected can prevent hepatitis D infection by getting vaccinated against hepatitis B. Treatment for hepatitis D is not as effective.
The World Health Organization data show an estimated 325 million people worldwide are infected with the hepatitis B and C virus, and 1.4 million people die annually from liver disease caused by untreated infections. With the availability of effective vaccines and treatment for hepatitis B and a cure for hepatitis C, the elimination of viral hepatitis could be achieved in the future.
VA recommends testing for all veterans born between 1945 and 1965 or Vietnam-era veterans who served from 1964-1975. It is also recommended to get tested if you have ever shared needles, received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992, received blood products for treatment of clotting problems before 1987, gotten tattoos or body piercings at a non-regulated facility, have current or past sex partners with hepatitis C, diagnosed with HIV, or have been incarcerated. If you are a veteran and interested in hepatitis vaccines, testing or treatment, contact your VA primary care provider. To enroll in VA health care, call 1-888-397-8387.