PHA Urge Hepatitis Testing

The Public Health Agency is encouraging members of the public to consider testing for hepatitis if they believe they may be at risk.

The appeal comes as World Hepatitis Day is marked this Sunday, 28 July, in a bid to raise awareness of testing for the virus, which represents one of the leading global causes of death.

Hepatitis is the term given to inflammation of the liver, usually the result of a viral infection or liver damage caused by drinking alcohol. Although some types will pass without any serious health risks, it can potentially cause chronic scarring of the liver, loss of liver function and liver cancer.

In Northern Ireland, 100 hepatitis B infections and 93 hepatitis C infections were reported in 2018. Approximately 1.34 million deaths are recorded each year.

Infected mothers are at risk of transmitting the virus to their babies, while it can also be passed on by sharing needles or equipment for injecting drugs, through sexual contact, or by having a tattoo or piercing done.

Anyone who was born in or received medical treatment in a higher risk part of the world, such as Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and South America is also advised to get tested.

Dr Anna McKeever, Specialist Registrar in Public Health at the PHA, explained: "Although relatively uncommon in Northern Ireland, hepatitis B and C can be serious, potentially life-threatening infections.

"Hepatitis B tends to be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby or through contact with infected blood, particularly in areas of the world where it is more common. In Northern Ireland, new infections with hepatitis B tend to be from sexual contact with an infected person."

The strand passed on through unsterile needles is known as Hepatitis C.

Dr McKeever continued: "Both hepatitis B and C are diseases that people can have for many years without developing any symptoms. However, they may be passed on to other people during this time and can lead to liver damage (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. The good news is that there is a vaccine to help prevent hepatitis B, and treatment for hepatitis C is now very effective.

"Therefore we are encouraging people to come forward for testing if they think they could be at risk, for example if they have ever injected drugs, even if this was only once or some time ago.

"It is also important to know about how to avoid becoming infected. This includes practising safer sex, avoiding getting tattoos abroad and not sharing needles or injecting equipment. Clean injecting equipment can be obtained from various needle exchange sites across Northern Ireland to reduce the risk from these infections."

Further information and advice can be found here.


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