July 28th is World Hepatitis Day, which is mandated by World Health Organization and aims to raise awareness of liver disease caused by hepatitis B or C virus. The theme this year is “Hepatitis Can’t Wait” to highlight the fact that efforts to treat hepatitis should still be prioritized despite current global challenges such as COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain disruption.
Hepatitis B and C virus infect over 350 million people globally and result in over 1.1 million lives lost each year. In Singapore, around 3-4% of our local residents carry hepatitis B virus whereas hepatitis C virus prevalence is much less common at 0.1-0.2%. Unfortunately, many people with such hepatitis are not aware of their infection, allowing the virus to gradually damage their livers to the point of no return. Furthermore, a substantial proportion of hepatitis patients are not aware of the importance of regular follow up and treatment options.
The organ affected by hepatitis B and C virus is our liver, which is our largest internal organ that carries out over 500 daily functions such as detoxification and protein production. It is a critical organ and we cannot survive without it. There are other diseases that can damage our livers such as fatty liver and alcohol liver disease. If left unnoticed and unchecked, long-term liver damage will lead to liver hardening, increase liver cancer risk and may result in life threatening liver failure.
Hepatitis B and C virus can be transmitted by blood or body fluids of an infected person. Occasionally, a cluster of hepatitis B or C infections are found within a same household, 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 hepatitis B or C virus cannot be transmitted if we breathe the same air, shake hands, hug or share food with an infected person.
Hepatitis can’t wait. Hepatitis is sometimes known as “silent killers” as many patients do not have symptoms initially, or have vague symptoms such as tiredness or appetite loss that could be easily brushed off as due to stress. When the liver is substantially damaged, symptoms such as jaundice, leg or abdominal swelling, confusion, vomiting blood or passing bloody stool may be experienced by the sufferer. At this stage, the liver is failing and could be life threatening.
The good news is hepatitis can be effectively treated to reverse early liver damage and prevent liver failure. For example, hepatitis B or C infection is easily treated or cured with once daily oral medication with no or minimal side effect. Hepatitis B vaccines provide excellent protection against the virus and are easily available in all GP clinics or public polyclinics.
It may sound cliché, but nothing is more true than the saying “prevention is better than cure” in liver health. A regular health screening that includes liver check every one or two years will help to ensure that your liver is in a good shape, or detect a silent liver disease which would have otherwise gone unnoticed and caused significant liver damage. It might take us a half, or even a full day at the clinic to undergo health screening but this health check could very well prove to be the best investment in one’s life!
This article was contributed by Dr Tan Poh Seng, AIA Preferred Provider, and Senior Consultant Gastroenterologist. To request an appointment with Dr Tan Poh Seng, please click here.