Millions of Americans are living with chronic viral hepatitis, and many do not know they are infected. Every year, approximately 15,000 Americans die from liver cancer or chronic liver disease associated with viral hepatitis. Despite this, viral hepatitis is not well known. In fact, as many as 75 percent of the millions of Americans with chronic viral hepatitis don’t know they’re infected.

The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is most often caused by one of several viruses, which is why it is often called viral hepatitis. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

Unlike Hepatitis A, which does not cause a long-term infection, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can become chronic, life-long infections. More than 4 million Americans are living with chronic Hepatitis B or chronic Hepatitis C, but most do not know they are infected. Chronic viral hepatitis can lead to serious liver problems including liver damage, cirrhosis and even liver cancer. Both Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C have contributed to the increase in rates of liver cancer in recent decades. Some population groups are disproportionately affected by viral hepatitis-related liver cancer. The number of new cases of liver cancer is highest in Asian and Pacific Islanders and is increasing among African Americans, baby boomers and men.

Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B can both be prevented with vaccines. Cases of Hepatitis A have dramatically declined in the U.S. over the last 20 years largely due to vaccination efforts. The Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all children at one year of age and for adults who may be at increased risk. Unfortunately, many people became infected with Hepatitis B before the Hepatitis B vaccine was widely available. The Hepatitis B vaccine is now recommended for all infants at birth and for adults who may be at increased risk.

Individuals can find out if they should be tested for Hepatitis by taking a five minute online Hepatitis Risk Assessment. The assessment is designed to determine an individual’s risk for viral hepatitis and asks questions based upon the CDC’s guidelines for testing and vaccination. The Hepatitis Risk Assessment can be accessed at www.cdc.gov/hepatitis.

If a person is not sure if they are at increased risk of contracting Hepatitis, he or she can call the Brownwood/Brown County Health Department at 325-646-0554 to find out if they are at risk and if they should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A or Hepatitis B.