May is Hepatitis Awareness Month. And the LGBT community, particularly gay and bisexual men, can be at greater risk for infection with viral hepatitis. The good news is that there are simple steps to take to prevent yourself from acquiring viral hepatitis.
First, a few facts: “Hepatitis” refers to an inflammation of the liver, often caused by a virus. In the U.S., the most common types are Hepatitis A, B and C, all caused by different viruses and all with different modes of transmission.
Hepatitis A is an “acute” infection and usually lasts no more than six months. Hepatitis B and C can begin as acute infections and then develop into “chronic” infections. About 15-25 percent of people with chronic Hepatitis develop serious liver conditions, including cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
According to the CDC “[e]ach year, about 70,000 Americans become infected with one type of acute viral hepatitis. In addition, an estimated 1.2 million people have chronic Hepatitis B, and 3.2 million people have chronic Hepatitis C. Of those living with chronic hepatitis, many do not know they are infected.”
Gay and bisexual men account for 10 percent of new Hepatitis A cases and 20 percent of Hepatitis B cases each year and are at increased risk for Hepatitis C if they engage in high-risk behaviors.
Hepatitis A is spread through ingestion of fecal matter. Direct oral-anal sexual contact or contact with fingers or objects that have been in or near the anus of an infected person.
Hepatitis B infection can occur when the body fluids of an infected person, such as blood or semen, enter the body of an uninfected person. Hepatitis B can be spread through sexual activity or through sharing injection drug use equipment.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infection. Sharing needles or other injection drug equipment can expose an uninfected person to the virus. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted sexually, although no one is sure how often that happens. People with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases can be at increased risk of infection.
The CDC states that “[o]f people with HIV infection, 25 percent also have Hepatitis C. New research shows that gay men who are HIV-positive and have multiple sex partners may increase their risk for Hepatitis C.”
The best way to deal with Hepatitis is to prevent infection. And the best way to prevent infection is to be vaccinated.
All gay and bisexual men should be vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B. The vaccines can be given separately or in combination. They are safe, effective and require two-three shots over a period of six months depending on the type of vaccine. You should complete all shots in the series for long-term protection. Booster shots are not currently recommended.
Whitman-Walker Health can provide free vaccinations for Hepatitis A and B. The vaccinations can be done in our Gay Men’s Health and Wellness Clinic every Tuesday and Thursday night at the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. This is a first come, first served clinic, so get there early to be seen.
There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. The best way to prevent Hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs.
Gay and bisexual men should be tested for Hepatitis B to see if they have already been infected and immune or chronically infected and need more thorough medical care. Testing for Hepatitis C is not recommended unless someone is engaging in risky behaviors or is HIV-positive.
WWH offers vaccinations, testing and treatment of Hepatitis. To become a WWH patient, call 202-745-7000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Raymond Martins is chief medical officer of Whitman-Walker Health.