Before looking at hepatitis immunization and vaccines, it is important to know what hepatitis actually is. Basically, it is an all-encompassing term for inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by infectious agents (alcohol, drugs) and by viruses. The Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B viruses are the most common, but they are actually unrelated. Hepatitis C is generally a sexually transmittable disease, for which there is no cure. Both hepatitis A and B are different in how they are passed on and the cause different chronic infections.
Hep A is caused by a faecal-oral virus. Some two weeks before the symptoms present, large amounts of the virus are passed through the stool and this continues for three months afterwards. Close contact to a carrier increases the risk of catching it, as does contact with children, who have lower hygiene standards. Some infections do not show any symptoms at all, particularly in children. For adults, however, the symptoms usually include poor appetite, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain, dark urine and jaundice. In extreme cases, Hepatitis A can lead to coma, liver failure and even death. However, if the patient recovers, there is no chronic illness present in the liver and they will be immune for life.
The hepatitis A vaccine, hence, protects for life as well. It is made by killing the viruses, and injecting them in the body so it starts to create antibodies. It takes some two to four weeks for all antibodies to have been created. Generally, a second dose is recommended. In the developed world, the vaccine is recommended for most children, as well as individuals classed as high risk, including drug users, gay men, travelers who go to developing countries, those who need blood transfusions and people with liver disease.
The hepatitis vaccination has only mild side effects, including soreness at the injection site. Some complain of fatigue and headaches.
Other than a vaccine, it is also possible to be injected directly with antibodies. This is an immediate protection, but it only lasts for a short period of time (two to four months at most).
The cost of hepatitis vaccine varies depending on where you live, but also on whether you are required the vaccine or whether you simply want it for your own peace of mind.
Hepatitis B is known as serum hepatitis. It is generally spread through blood and sexual intercourse. It can also be passed from mother to child in the womb. People often catch it inadvertently, for instance by sharing tooth brushes or by having a tattoo. Some people do not display any symptoms, others display jaundice, weight loss and fatigue. In extreme cases, hepatitis B can lead to liver failure and/or death.
Just as with hepatitis A, the infection can generally clear on its own and the body then becomes immune for life. However, some are unable to clear it and become chronically ill. This can be a mild illness, but it can also cause significant damage of the liver. Even those who have been cured may still have traces of the virus in their liver. Liver cancer is a reasonably common side effect.
The hepatitis B vaccine is incredibly effective. The vaccine contains a protein antigen that makes the body create antibodies. The vaccine is also fully safe. They are offered as standard to those who work in public sectors such as health workers. They are also offered to those on dialysis and partners of people who have been infected. After vaccination, a blood test is conducted to ensure it has been effective. Besides some soreness on the injection point, there are usually no hepatitis immunization side-effects.
There is currently no hepatitis C vaccine, although research is on-going. Problems with the vaccine’s development mean that as such it is not part of the hepatitis vaccination schedule.