What is Hepatitis A? Do frequent travelers face an increased risk of contracting Hepatitis A? Can I minimize that risk?
All valid questions. Let’s take a look at them one by one. Identified as a traveler’s affliction, Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus. No one is immune. Infection can occur as an isolated incident or become epidemic.
HAV is found in the stool (feces) of infected individuals. It’s transmitted when an uninfected person ingests something that has been contaminated by a carrier. This type of transmission, called fecal-oral, is prevalent in regions noted for poor sanitary conditions and substandard personal hygiene.
Adults who contract Hepatitis A are more likely than children to exhibit symptoms, including sudden onset of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea and fever. Symptoms usually wane within two months of infection, but a few people experience symptoms for up to six months. About 15 percent of people infected with HAV will have prolonged or recurring symptoms for up to a year.
Diagnosis requires a blood test. Contact your physician or local health department if you suspect you may have been exposed to the virus. The good news is, once you’ve contracted Hepatitis A, you are immune from future infections by the same virus. Exposure does not cause any long-term symptoms, but infection can be deadly to anyone with chronic liver disease. Approximately one-third of all Americans have experienced Hepatitis A infection.
So, who’s at risk? In general, anyone who comes into household or sexual contact with an infected person. That’s particularly true in areas with widespread cases of Hepatitis A or for people who travel to countries where Hepatitis A is a common affliction. While exposure is higher for people staying in or visiting rural areas-especially regions with sub-par sanitary conditions-the risk for Hepatitis A exists even for travelers staying in urban areas and luxury hotels.
Prevention is possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise anyone planning travel to underdeveloped countries reporting high or intermediate rates of Hepatitis A (a list that includes most of the world with the exception of the United States, Canada, Iceland, Australia and most of Europe) to get vaccinated prior to travel. The Hepatitis A vaccine is the best protection. It consists of two injections, the first of which is administered at least four weeks before travel. Your doctor will advise you regarding administration of the second dose.
The Hepatitis A vaccine has an excellent safety record. No serious adverse effects have been associated with the vaccine.
Soreness at the injection site is the most frequently reported side effect. Although data on long-term protection are limited, estimates suggest that the protection will last up to 20 years. Protection against Hepatitis A begins four weeks after the first dose of the vaccine is administered. Other vaccines may be given at the same time, but at a different injection site.
Short-term protection against Hepatitis A is available in the form of immune globulin injections. Immune globulin is a safe preparation of antibodies that can be administered prior to exposure or within two weeks of coming into contact with Hepatitis A.
An Ounce of Prevention
Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.
Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water prior to preparing or eating food.
Avoid drinking untreated tap water.
Avoid using ice cubes made from untreated tap water.
Brush teeth using only bottled or boiled water.
Do not eat unpeeled fruits, uncooked vegetables or raw shellfish.
Do not eat food or drink beverages purchased from street vendors, unless you are buying a commercially prepared product.
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