March 20, 2012
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious disease. It’s caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). While hepatitis A is often a relatively mild disease, it can manifest very severe symptoms in some individuals. Rarely, a serious case of Hepatitis A results in liver failure and death. With care, the patients own immune system should be able to fight off the disease. Once the virus has been overcome, the illness recedes and doesn’t usually come back.
The incubation period for the hepatitis A virus is about four weeks, During this time, you may have the virus and be infectious even though you feel perfectly well; symptoms don’t manifest until the virus has built up sufficient numbers to trigger an immune response. Patients with hepatitis A typically become jaundiced. They lose their appetites and develop symptoms similar to an upset stomach: nausea, vomiting and loose stools. The patient will generally experience aches and pains similar to a flu attack.
The hepatitis A virus is shed from the lining of an infected person’s intestines and comes out in their stool. If an uninfected person then comes into contact with this waste, they may also be infected. The virus must be transferred to the new patient’s mouth in order to infect them. It can therefore be spread by an infected person who doesn’t wash their hands properly after using the bathroom; through contaminated water; or on food that has been contaminated. This can happen if the person preparing the food has traces of the virus on their hands; it can also occur if HAV is present in waste used to fertilise vegetables. Fruits or vegetables washed in contaminated water can be a source of infection.
HAV can also be spread through unsafe sexual contact; statistically, men who have sex with men may be especially vulnerable but anyone can potentially contract hepatitis A in this manner. Practicing safer sex can reduce the risk, although it doesn’t eradicate it entirely.
As the virus is spread through infected people’s stool, good hygiene is a major weapon in preventing the transmission of HAV. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after every visit to the bathroom; use alcohol wipes or hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to these. If you are in a location that may have inadequate water purification, you should avoid eating fresh fruit or salads. All your water should be purified and boiled. Don’t drink unpackaged fruit juices, as these may be mixed with contaminated water or made from contaminated fruit. Even ice in drinks can be a possible source of infection with the virus, if made using contaminated water.
The virus can live on surfaces that have been contaminated by contact with unpurified water or through being touched by someone who has the virus on their skin. Cleaning surfaces with hot water and soap, disinfectant or sterilising fluid can reduce the chance of infection. This is especially important if food is to be prepared on a surface.
By following such common-sense precautions, it’s possible to arrest the spread of the hepatitis A virus.