A primer on hepatitis A

I have a special interest in this topic because, as usual, it's about something that's affecting me.

Where I live, at least one food handler at the local organic food store has developed hepatitis A. As I write, five patrons of this store are now known to have come down with this infection, and health authorities believe several more (at least) will get sick before this outbreak runs its course. And needless to say, people who ate any of the products that may have been handled by the sick worker - in fact, even some people who just walked by the store - are now worried that they might soon get hepatitis, too. That, folks, includes me and my family, since I often shop there, and I'm the guy who feeds my pack.

So here's a primer on hepatitis A, folks, which, coincidentally, is a disease I am quite familiar with since, during the 1970s, I worked for several years at the Pine Free Clinic, a clinic that catered to a clientele that had the kind of lifestyles that raised their risks of getting some form of hepatitis. Interestingly, however, most of those old hippies who lived in communes back then, drove beat-up old VW vans, and lived rather loose lives, now drive SUVS, own their own homes, and live all-around much more carefully. Yet because of their new safer lifestyles, they also tend to shop more for organic produce, so they are now again at risk of getting hepatitis. Ironic!

Hepatitis A used to be known as "infectious hepatitis," because it wasn't until the late 1970s that the specific virus that causes this disease was isolated. That virus has now been given the rather unimaginative name of the hepatitis A virus (HAV). According to 2004 American statistics, there were 2 reported cases of hepatitis A infection for every 100,000 people.

You're not going to like this, but hepatitis A is spread through contact with the stool (feces) from an infected person. Thus, for obvious reasons, food handlers are a particular concern when they develop hepatitis A.

People at high risk include household and sexual contacts of infected persons, gay or bisexual men, intravenous drug users, and travelers to countries where there's a high incidence of hepatitis A in the community.

The incubation period is anywhere from 15 to 50 days. Most people who get hepatitis A develop a mild flu-like illness. Common symptoms include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, jaundice, dark urine, and light-colored stools, although some people develop no noticeable symptoms.

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A, except for rest, proper nutrition, adequate fluid intake, and avoiding products (alcohol, some medications) that might tax a sick liver unduly.

The symptoms associated with a hepatitis A infection generally do not last longer than 2 months, although the elderly and those with pre-existing liver disease are at slightly greater risk of developing a severe infection, which can lead to liver failure and death.

The best way to deal with hepatitis A is to prevent it with a vaccine. Proper vaccination can provide long-term protection against a hepatitis A infection. If you have not been vaccinated and are exposed to the hepatitis A virus, then an immune globulin injection can be used within 2 weeks to help reduce the likelihood of becoming infected.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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