Category Archives: vaccine

Do you know what hepatitis is?

‘Hep’ means liver and ‘itis’ means inflammation of, so hepatitis literally means inflammation of the liver.

Your liver is a large organ – it’s your body’s waste disposal system. It also regulates metabolism, stores iron and vitamins such as folate and B12 and produces proteins and bile, a liquid that’s needed to digest fats. If your liver doesn’t work properly, the result can be serious illness and it can be life-threatening, too.

The causes of hepatitis can be due to chemicals, alcohol, drug use and viruses such as the yellow fever virus and the virus that causes glandular fever.

There are seven forms of hepatitis – some types don’t cause serious health problems but others can result in chronic (long-term problems), scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and even liver cancer.

Here’s our guide to what you need to know about the different types of hepatitis.

What are the symptoms?

Short-term (acute) hepatitis may not have any symptoms at all and if there are symptoms, they might be pretty non-specific i.e. they can be connected with many conditions. For example, nausea, tiredness, abdominal pain, muscle and joint pain, getting bruised easily, a high temperature (fever) of 38 degrees Celsius, dark coloured urine and light bowel movements are signs of hepatitis.

small image_sore stomach

Long-term (chronic) hepatitis may not have any obvious symptoms, either, until the liver stops working properly and liver failure results. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) is also a sign of late stage liver failure. Hepatitis may only be picked up during blood tests.

If you have any persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by hepatitis, go and see your GP immediately.

The seven types of hepatitis are:

  1. Hepatitis A

Caused by the hepatitis A virus, this infection is caught by consuming food or drink contaminated with the bowel movements of an infected person. It is most common in countries with poor sanitation. This type of hepatitis usually passes in a few months. But, it can be severe and even life-threatening.

If you’re travelling overseas, book in before your trip to see your GP, who may recommend a vaccination.

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  1. Hepatitis B

Caused by the hepatitis B virus, infection is spread via the blood of an infected person (e.g. through shared injection needles).

Most adults can fight off the infection in two months or so. But infection in children may be long-term and can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Treatment may involve antiviral medications. If you are in a high-risk group, for example, if you are a health care worker or you inject drugs – your GP may recommend vaccination.

  1. Hepatitis C

Caused by the hepatitis C virus, this is usually spread via blood-to-blood contact with an infected person (e.g. via shared needles or through poor health care practices). Symptoms of infection may be similar to a bout of flu and many people don’t know that they are infected.

Around one in four people can fight off the infection but most people will develop chronic hepatitis C[i], which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. Treatment is usually antiviral medication but currently there is no vaccination.

  1. Hepatitis D

Caused by the hepatitis D virus, this infection only affects people who already have hepatitis B. It is usually spread through blood-to-blood or sexual contact. It is not common in Australia[ii].

Long-term hepatitis D infection can increase the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. Although there is no vaccine for hepatitis D, your GP might suggest the hepatitis B vaccine to protect you from getting hepatitis D.

  1. Hepatitis E

Common in developing countries, this type of hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis E virus; infection is usually caught via consuming food and drink contaminated with bowel movements from an infected person. Generally mild and short-lived, the infection doesn’t require any treatment. However, for a small number of people, it can be serious (such as those with a suppressed immune system) and it can become chronic.

There’s no vaccine to protect against hepatitis E but you can reduce your risk by being very careful with food and drinks when travelling to parts of the world with poor sanitation. If you are pregnant, you should not travel to areas where there is a lot of hepatitis E, especially during the last three months of pregnancy.

  1. Alcoholic hepatitis

Caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a number of years, many people who have it don’t know that they do because it usually doesn’t have any symptoms. However, it can be detected by a blood test (liver function test). Your liver can usually recover if you stop drinking alcohol. But if you don’t, the result can be liver failure or liver cancer.

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  1. Autoimmune hepatitis

Like other autoimmune conditions, autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the cells of the body start attacking itself. Treatment involves medication to stop the attack.  More research needs to be done to find out why it happens and if anything can be done to prevent autoimmune hepatitis.

For more information, contact:

  • Your GP
  • National Hepatitis information line on 1800 437 222
  • DirectLine (for information about where to get clean needles and syringes for drug users) on 1800 888 236
  • Immunise Australia information line on 1800 671 811.
Ravinder Lilly
Ravinder Lilly, Dietitian at rt health fund

 

[i] NHS Choices. Hepatitis. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Hepatitis/Pages/Introduction.aspx#hep-C

[ii] Hepatitis Australia. Hepatitis D. http://www.hepatitisaustralia.com/hepatitis-d/

Influenza – should you get vaccinated?

As soon as autumn arrives, you can hear the word flu (a shortened version of the term influenza) being talked about everywhere. But, do you know what causes influenza? What’s in the vaccine? How it works? And whether it’s right for you? Dr Jui Tham, Chief Medical Officer at rt health fund has the answers …

The influenza virus explained

Influenza is an infection caused by a number of different viruses – tiny organisms that can invade living things – plants, animals (including other microorganisms) and humans.

Stock-image-woman-with-flu-in-bed_xxlInfection spreads via droplets of air-borne moisture – one sneeze can project 100,000 particles into the air. And, in just 12 hours, one influenza virus can invade and multiply through a million cells in your nose and throat. If they reach the lungs, they can trigger problems like bronchitis and pneumonia. Every year in Australia, influenza causes about 18,000 hospitalisations and 300,000 GP consultations[i]. It can be a serious condition for the very young and the elderly, for whom it can be fatal. For the majority of the population who are generally reasonably healthy, it isn’t fatal but can be very debilitating.

More about the viruses

The tiny microorganisms that are influenza viruses can only replicate inside a living organism so they’re always looking for a way to get inside you. When they do, viral cells take charge of your body cells making them produce more viral particles, turning your cells into a sort of influenza factory. And, as they increase in number, symptoms are triggered – fever, aching, shivering and more.

One of the ways your body’s immune system defends against infection, after detecting microorganism invaders, is by fighting them by producing very specific antibodies, disease-fighting soldiers. After fighting that particular invader, the blueprint to overcome it is retained. That way, should your body encounter that very same organism, it can rapidly produce and deploy the soldiers needed to destroy the particular invader and protect the body from infection.

The trouble is, viruses can easily change their format slightly (mutate). This tiny mutation means that it becomes an organism that the body hasn’t encountered. So, a whole new blueprint for the infection fighter has to be made. And this takes time.

What’s in the vaccination?

Because viruses mutate easily, a new vaccine is needed every year – last year’s vaccination probably won’t protect you from this year’s outbreak.

The vaccination contains three strains of the viruses that have caused the most illness in the northern hemisphere the season before.

The vaccine contains dead viruses – they don’t need to be alive to trigger your body to produce antibodies to them. So, if you were to encounter any of the three strains contained in the vaccine, your immune system can act rapidly.

Will the vaccine give me influenza?

Because the vaccine contains dead viruses, it can’t trigger influenza. Sometimes people feel ill after an influenza vaccination but this is more likely to be due to an unconnected infection such as a cold. It is still possible for you to catch an influenza virus after vaccination – there are many strains of influenza virus around and the vaccination only protects you against the three most common strains.

In fact, there are so many different types of influenza virus that it isn’t possible to mass-produce a vaccine to protect against them all. But what the vaccine does do is alert your body to the threat of it without the virus being able to reproduce and cause symptoms. Even so, there might be a little soreness around the injection site and, rarely, a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards.

Who needs it?

Experts recommend that certain people get vaccinated against influenza because if they were to catch it they may pass it onto vulnerable people or because they may be vulnerable themselves.

Vaccination is recommended for anyone over six months who wants to be protected against influenza. And it is free for:

  • People over 65 years
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 15 years of age
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged from six months to less than five years
  • Pregnant women
  • Infants aged six months or older with heart disease, asthma, chronic lung disease, diseases of the nervous system, impaired immunity, diabetes or infants who have had a chronic illness requiring medical follow-up or hospitalisation in the past year
  • Children aged six months to 10 years who are on long-term aspirin therapy
  • People who live or work in nursing homes/other long-term care facilities and people who are homeless.

If you don’t fall into these at-risk groups, you can still go along and get vaccinated at your GP clinic – some pharmacies also provide this service and it will cost you around $10.

When should you have it?

It’s best to be vaccinated in autumn before winter comes to allow you time to build immunity (it can take three weeks after immunisation to do this). The vaccine is released in March/April and the influenza season lasts until August/September.

Is it safe?

Talk to your doctor if you have an egg allergy, as the vaccine might contain traces of egg. And don’t have a vaccination if you have a cold or influenza because of the slight chance of fever. Otherwise, the influenza vaccine is considered safe.

What else can you do to avoid influenza this winter?Stock-image-middle-aged-man-running_xxl-15

We’ve known for a long time that exercise can help to boost mood and build strength and it may even boost resistance to infection. Researchers at the University of Sydney are studying whether exercising before having an influenza vaccine could improve its effectiveness[ii]. The researchers say that although we know that regular exercise activates the immune system, it may also improve the body’s response to the vaccine.

To find out more, talk to your GP or go to www.immunise.health.gov.au.

Jui Tham is Chief Medical Officer at rt health fund
Jui Tham is Chief Medical Officer at rt health fund

[i] Influenza Specialist Group. Influenza Fast Facts. http://www.isg.org.au/index.php/clinical-information/influenza-fast-facts-/

[ii] University of Sydney. Flu shots boosted by exercise. http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=11426