In honour of World Hepatitis Day on 28 July, gastroenterologist and hepatology specialist DR TAN POH SENG sheds some light on viral hepatitis, and what you can do to prevent this type of liver disease.
How serious is liver disease?
The liver is an amazing organ, with over 500 functions, including digestion and ridding the body of toxins; we simply can’t live without it. It’s the largest internal organ and even has the unique ability to regenerate if part of it has been cut out.
But, although it can repair itself to a certain extent when damaged, there are many ways that liver disease can result in long-term problems – to the point of no return. In fact, liver disease is a major health issue globally, with hundreds of millions of people affected by it in various forms. Dreadful complications of long-term liver disease include life-threatening liver hardening (cirrhosis), liver cancer and liver failure – which together account for more than two million yearly deaths worldwide.
While some liver diseases are caused by drugs or excessive alcohol intake, others are caused by viruses, with hepatitis B and C infections being the main culprits of liver disease globally.
In Singapore alone, around three to four percent of local residents carry the hepatitis B virus. The prevalence of hepatitis C virus is much less common, at around 0.1 to 0.2 percent.
How is viral hepatitis transmitted?
Hepatitis B and C viruses can be transmitted by blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. Sometimes, a cluster of hepatitis B or C infections are found within the same household. This is mainly due to the fact that an infected mother can pass the virus to her child during childbirth, or cross infection occurs between spouses.
However, it is important to note that the hepatitis B and C viruses are not transmitted by breathing the same air, shaking hands, giving hugs or sharing food with an infected person.
What are the signs to look for?
Hepatitis B and C infection are sometimes known as the “silent killers” as the majority of patients do not have any symptoms in the early stages of infection. These viruses usually cause liver injury over a long period of time, ultimately leading to a weakened liver and liver cirrhosis, which can increase one’s risk of liver cancer.
Symptoms of serious liver damage include jaundice, appetite loss, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, leg or abdominal swelling, vomiting blood or passing bloody stool.
How can viral hepatitis be treated?
Fortunately, there are highly effective and well-tolerated oral tablet treatments with minimal side effects for hepatitis B or C infection. Hepatitis B vaccines are also readily available, and provide excellent protection against the virus for people without the infection. In fact, universal hepatitis B vaccination to all newborns has been implemented in Singapore since 1987. This has significantly reduced hepatitis B cases among our younger population.
For patients who have developed liver failure at the time of diagnosis, liver transplantation may be an option to cure them when all other therapies fail.
Of course, prevention is better than a cure. Hepatitis infection should be detected as early as possible so that active treatment can be started immediately to prevent further deterioration in liver health.
How can viral hepatitis be prevented?
Given that early liver disease is “silent”, the challenge really lies in early detection. As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure”! We should all take a proactive approach to our health and go for a liver check once every one to two years.
This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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