Hepatitis, which is believed to affect almost 4.5 million Americans, is actually a group of related diseases. The three main varieties are A, B, and C, all of which can be transmitted sexually or through infected blood. In addition, type A can be spread through contaminated food, and B and C can be passed from mother to child during labor. Two other kinds, D and E, are much rarer. Regardless of what kind it is, hepatitis affects the liver, and can lead to liver failure or cirrhosis if not treated properly. Sometimes it goes away on its own; it is not clear what causes the disease to be self-limiting in some cases but not others—though it is far more common with type A than with the others—and experts say it is probably best not to take the risk. Hepatitis symptoms include yellowed skin or eyes, dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
However, hepatitis often occurs with no symptoms at all, and the only way to detect the condition in these cases is by testing. In fact, it is recommended that Baby Boomers—people born between 1945 and 1965, who have five times the risk for hepatitis C—be tested even if they show no signs of the disease. Boomers are at high risk in part because donated blood was not screened for the virus until 1982.
One of the most common ways for hepatitis A to spread is in contaminated food. Restaurant kitchens, in fact, are a common vector for hepatitis A, and proper sanitation, in restaurants and at home, is one of the most effective ways to prevent its spread. It requires relatively little effort and offers enormous benefits. Other ways hepatitis can spread include unclean needles, unprotected sex, and other contact with bodily fluids.
Vaccines are available for types A and B, but none for C, by far the most common type. However, recent research suggests avenues of exploration for the development of such a vaccine. The virus that causes hepatitis C is ever changing, making it difficult for the body to develop an immune response. A study, however, has found a part of the virus that nonetheless renders it identifiable, giving vaccine researchers a target.