Q Does hepatitis A pose a serious threat to the health of young children?

A Though hepatitis A is considered to be a relatively benign disease in young children, this may not always be the case. Children present with more atypical signs and severe gastrointestinal symptoms than adults. There is evidence to suggest that over 60% of two to five year-olds develop jaundice with associated dark urine and pale stools. The significant health risk that severe diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting can present to the young should not be forgotten.

Q Does improvement in living conditions decrease the chances of infection with hepatitis A virus?

A Yes. The risk of acquiring the hepatitis A virus is closely tied to poor standards of living. Poor standards of hygiene and sanitation favour the spread of the virus. Chances of early childhood exposure is high in this setting. In contrast, an improvement in standards of hygiene and sanitation leads to a decline in levels of circulating virus. As a result, risk of early exposure is lesser among those living in an improved socio-economic environment. In this group, contamination is more likely among young children, adolescents and adults.

Q Who is at risk?

A Any non-immune person exposed to the virus can develop hepatitis A. This includes children attending daycare centres, schools, etc. and individuals from upper socio-economic groups who are unlikely to have been exposed to the virus. Travellers to highly endemic areas, food handlers, healthcare workers, school or daycare employees and contacts of infected persons are also at risk.

Q Is hepatitis A different from hepatitis B?

A Hepatitis A and B are two different forms of viral hepatitis caused by different viruses. While the hepatitis A virus is transmitted mainly through contaminated food and water, the hepatitis B virus may be passed on through blood, sexual contact or from the infected mother to the newborn.

Jaundice i.e yellowness of the eyes, skin and urine can be an early symptom of both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Q Can hepatitis A be prevented?

A Immunoglobulins can be administered to provide temporary protection for three to five months. Since regular injections are required to maintain protection, this option is expensive.

A vaccine is now available and is the most practical means of protection against hepatitis A. Primary vaccination protects the person for up to one year and a booster dose administered after six months, provides predicted protection for at least 20 years.