Thanks to successful research, three forms of liver disease – hepatitis A, B and D* – can be prevented by immunization.

*although there is no specific vaccine for hepatitis D, being immunized against hepatitis B will prevent you from contracting hepatitis D.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food, such as raw or insufficiently cooked shellfish and contaminated water. It can be passed by someone infected with the virus who doesn’t wash his/her hands properly after a bowel movement and then touches something that you eat.

The good news is that hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination. A variety of vaccines are available to make immunization fit your needs. The vaccine will prevent you from contracting hepatitis A and from being a potential source of infection to others.

If you are planning to travel to destinations such as Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe, you should get vaccinated against hepatitis A. These areas can be high risk for hepatitis A due to improper food handling and preparation and inadequate sewage and water purification systems. You do not necessarily need to be vaccinated if you are travelling in Canada, the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand or Japan. In the past several years however, there have been hepatitis A outbreaks or alerts in North America due to contaminated produce used in a restaurant or sold in a supermarket and an infected individual involved in food preparation or food serving. The hepatitis A vaccination should also be considered for those who work in day-care settings and especially those who diaper infants.

There are several different hepatitis A vaccines licensed for use in Canada. These vaccines are well-tolerated and are at least 85-90 percent effective in preventing hepatitis A. Adverse reactions are generally mild and short-lived and may include reactions at the injection site, including pain, redness and swelling.

For more information on the hepatitis A vaccination, please consult your doctor.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is another form of liver disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. The hepatitis B virus is 100 times more contagious than the virus that causes AIDS. It is spread through infected blood or body fluids or by sexual contact with an infected person. Hepatitis B is not spread by water, food or through casual contact.

Like hepatitis A, hepatitis B is also preventable by vaccine. Three injections of this vaccine within a six-month period provide long-lasting protection against hepatitis in the majority of people. People most at risk are those whose jobs may expose them to blood or body fluids ( i.e. firefighters, health care professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.), sexual partners of hepatitis B carriers and babies born to mothers who are hepatitis B carriers. Immigrants from countries where hepatitis B is common (i.e. Asia, Southern and Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands) also carry greater risk.

In Canada, there are hepatitis B vaccines licensed for use in adults and separate formulations for use in children. There is also a combined hepatitis A and B vaccine available.

The above mentioned vaccines are generally well tolerated by adults and children, with a few mild and transient adverse effects. The most common adverse effects include pain, soreness and redness at the injection site and mildly elevated temperature.

Most Canadian provinces and territories provide universal hepatitis B vaccination programs for school-aged and pre-teen children. These vaccinations are usually offered to children in grades 5 to 7 depending upon the province.

For more information on the hepatitis B immunization, please contact your doctor or public health nurse.

Preventing the hepatitis B infection post-exposure

For those who have had recent contact (seven days or less) with infected blood or body fluids, immunization with the hepatitis B immune globulin may be effective in preventing an acute form of the illness.

Infants born to mothers infected with the hepatitis B will receive hepatitis B immune globulin at birth as well as the first of three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine. These infants will receive the second dose at one month and the third at six months of age. This treatment will give the baby a 95 percent chance of not becoming infected with the hepatitis B virus.

Hepatitis C

At this time, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, all people with chronic liver disease, including hepatitis C, should be immunized against both hepatitis A and B. A second infection by either virus can compound the damage to your liver. For those whose hepatitis C is more advanced, drug treatment may be appropriate and must be administered after careful assessment by your physician.