VaccinationCurrently, vaccination is only available to protect against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. These forms of hepatitis are caused by viral infections that can be prevented with safe and affordable vaccines. They are available for anyone interested, but are strongly recommended for people at high risk for exposure. At this time, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Immune Globulin for Traveling AbroadImmune globulin, also known as IG, is a potent collection of purified antibodies that provides immediate protection to people recently exposed to hepatitis A or hepatitis B viruses, or to people who may be exposed (for example, travelers to countries where infection rates are high). Because IG is an injection of already formed antibodies, the immune system is immediately able to start protecting the body. This is very different from a vaccine, because they require time to stimulate the body’s immune system to produce the desired antibodies. Usually receiving IG will completely prevent disease, but sometimes it will only help reduce the its severity and duration. IG can also be given in combination with a vaccine. This is an effective strategy because the IG offers immediate protection until the vaccine is able to provide protection.
Hand WashingIn this modern age of advanced technology, we often forget that our single best protection against many illnesses is regular and proper hand washing. The risk of hepatitis A infection is especially lowered by washing your hands because the hepatitis A virus spreads through the fecal-oral route. This means that the virus enters the body through a person’s mouth with something that came into contact with the feces of an infected person. Because this is usually a person’s hands, regular hand washing interrupts this infection cycle.
Another variation to the fecal-oral route is eating food prepared by an infected person with poor personal hygiene. Sometimes hepatitis A can be spread by infected food handlers who don’t wash their hands well after using the toilet. This could infect a small family after an infected teenager prepares sandwiches for the household; or maybe an entire community by an infected food handler at a popular restaurant. These latter outbreaks quickly gain media attention because of the number of people exposed and the necessary public health intervention which usually consists of health education and maybe even IG clinics. Of course, the best prevention for these outbreaks is consistent hand washing for all food handlers.
Avoid Used NeedlesReusing needles is a dangerous practice that tremendously increases the risks of developing hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections. Because of these risks, and the risks of developing other diseases, you should not use illegal intravenous drugs (drugs that require shooting up) or those that use other items like “snorting straws” that can be contaminated with blood. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are both caused by viruses that are spread by direct contact with infected blood or body fluids in such a way that the viruses can get inside your body. This can happen through a cut in your skin or a puncture with a needle. Because of this, people who use dirty needles are at a very high risk of infecting themselves with the viruses that cause hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Interestingly, people who work in healthcare settings, and especially those who work with needles in this setting, are at increased risk of hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections because of the potential for a needle-stick injury. Any needle-stick injury should be promptly washed with soap and water followed by professional medical attention.