A syringe with a vaccine against hepatitis Getty

Hepatitis is a term used to describe the inflammation of the liver as a result of viral infection or exposure to harmful or toxic substances such as drugs or alcohol. While some types of hepatitis will pass without causing permanent damage to the liver, chronic cases can cause cirrhosis, liver failure or cancer.

Around 400 million people worldwide are living with hepatitis B or C, which together cause approximately 80% of all liver cancer deaths and kill nearly 1.4 million people every year. Yet with better awareness and understanding of hepatitis prevention, up to 4,000 lives can be saved every day.

There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E, which pose the greatest risk.

Hepatitis A

Also known as HAV, hepatitis A is most commonly transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. While the majority of infections in cases are mild and the patient is able to make a full recovery, some can be life threatening in areas with poor sanitation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), certain sex practices can also spread HAV.

Hepatitis B

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted through exposure to infective blood, semen and other body fluids. In some rare cases, it can be transmitted from infected mothers to infants during birth.

HBV can also be spread through contaminated blood transfusions and medical procedures, as well as injection drug use.

Hepatitis C

The most common type of hepatitis, HCV is most commonly transmitted through exposure to infective blood though injection drug use. Sexual transmission is also possible, although this is less common. As of yet, there is no vaccine for HCV.

Hepatitis D

HDV infections occur only in those who are infected with hepatitis B. Chronic hepatitis D can increase the risk of cirrhosis developing.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E virus is mostly transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. It is most commonly transmitted in developing countries and is spread by putting something in the mouth that is contaminated with the faeces of someone with hepatitis E.

Facts about hepatitis

The hepatitis A virus is one of the most frequent causes of food-borne infection.

In developing countries with very poor sanitary conditions and hygienic practices, most children have been infected with the hepatitis A virus before the age of 10 years, according to the WHO.

Between 130 and 150 million people globally have chronic hepatitis C infection.

Approximately 500 000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases.

More than 780 000 people die every year due to complications of hepatitis B, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. A vaccine has been available since 1982.

Every year there are an estimated 20 million hepatitis E infections.

World Hepatitis Day is marked on 28 July.