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What is Hepatitis?

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Updated June 29, 2006

Hepatitis means inflammation (itis) of the liver (hepar), an irritation or swelling of the liver cells. There are many causes of hepatitis which include viral infections A, B and C that most of us have heard of, but also the disease also includes auto-immune hepatitis, fatty liver hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis and toxin induced hepatitis. Globally, it is estimated that around 250 million people are affected by hepatitis C. Moreover, an estimated 400 million people are chronic carriers of hepatitis B.

How Big is the Hepatitis Problem?
Hepatitis is an enormous health issue; so extensive in fact that there is a good chance you associate with at least one or more people with hepatitis. There is an equally high chance that you know nothing about them because with hepatitis comes a stigma. Often people with hepatitis find it easier to get on with their life by not informing others. This is mainly due to the difficulties they can experience due to the ignorance of others. The problem may however be compounded by the fact that some forms of hepatitis are infectious. However, people who know they have infectious hepatitis need only take a few basic precautions to avoid passing the infection around.

The Liver.
Hepatitis affects the liver. The liver is a wedge shaped organ located on the upper right side of the body, lying beneath the rib cage. The largest organ it makes up 2 to 3 per cent of the body’s total weight. Unlike the heart or stomach, the liver has no one function. Doctors specialising in the liver, hepatologists, believe that it has over 140 functions. These include producing bile needed for digestion, storing minerals and vitamins, assisting in blood clotting (vitamin K), neutralising poisons, producing amino acids to build healthy muscles, regulating energy, maintaining hormonal balance, processing drugs. When someone gets hepatitis the function of the liver is compromised and the functions of it can be affected to varying degrees.

The History of Hepatitis
Hepatitis was believed to exist in viral form from ancient times. It is known that a disease existed that affected the liver and caused yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Between the 1800s and early 1900s, 2 types were identified as either serum type or viral type. In 1963 there was a major breakthrough which identified the cause of serum hepatitis and named the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Ten years later the cause of infectious hepatitis was found and named the Hepatitis A virus (HAV), and although scientists knew other viruses existed it was not until 1989 that the hepatitis C virus (HCV) was isolated.

Although the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) was known about since the mid 1970s, it was only in the late 1980s -1990s that it was understood to exist only in the presence of hepatitis B. In 1990, hepatitis E virus (HEV) and in 1995, Hepatitis G virus (HGV), were identified. Other viruses, hepatitis F virus (HFV) and transfusion transmission virus (TTV) are thought to exist, but are not as yet proven.

Viral Hepatitis
Each type of viral hepatitis is different. They have different characteristics and are known by alphabetical names - hepatitis A through to E. Four other types exist F, G, TTV (Transfusion Transmitted Virus) and S.E.N-V (these are the initials of the person in which this form of the virus was first identified - V standing for virus). Behavioral precautions and treatment depends on the type of hepatitis.

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