Hepatitis

Hepatitis is a medical term used to describe inflammation/swelling of the liver. Hepatitis can occur as the result of a viral infection or if the liver is exposed to too much alcohol. With Hepatitis A and B the virus will pass often without causing any permanent liver damage. However other types such as Hepatitis C and chronic Hepatitis B can persist for many years and cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. In the most serious of cases it may lead to liver failure or cancer of the liver which could be fatal. If you have hepatitis then it is advisable not to drink alcohol as this could put further pressure on the liver which may already be struggling due to the virus.

Hepatitis C and Testing

Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect and damage the liver. The virus is passed through blood, so can be contracted by sexual intercourse and through sharing items that may have an infected person’s blood on it.

Hepatitis C does not usually cause any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged from the virus.

When people do start to show symptoms, they can be vague and easily mistaken for other illnesses. Symptoms include:

  • flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches and loss of appetite
  • feeling tired all the time
  • depression

Because of this, many people can be unaware for some time that they are infected by Hepatitis C.

How do you get hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Some examples of ways blood can be transferred include:

  • Sharing razors or toothbrushes
  • Sharing unsterilised needles (for example, while injecting drugs)
  • Unprotected sexual intercourse, although this is very rare. The risk may be higher with men who are in same sex relationships and are sexually active, so wearing a condom is advised.

Hepatitis C is more common in certain parts of the world, including North Africa, the Middle East and Central and East Asia, and this is thought to result from the use of shared needles for vaccination or medical treatment.

Getting tested

If you are in one of the high-risk groups mentioned above it is recommended you have a test for Hepatitis C.

The i-access service can test you for the Hepatitis C antibody of the virus, to see if you have been exposed to the virus. The test itself involves a simple skin prick test where small amounts of blood are collected on a card and sent off to the laboratory for testing. We talk you through the process and give you all the information prior to testing. Depending on the results we then discuss with you what (if any) treatment and further testing may be needed. The sooner treatment begins after exposure to the Hepatitis C virus the more likely it is to succeed.

Treating Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is treatable by antiviral medications which are designed to stop the virus from multiplying inside the body and preventing damage to the liver.

Two widely used antiviral medications are interferon and ribavirin. If treatment is required and you decide to accept the treatment then we can refer you to a specialist department in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, who can advise you on the next steps.

Prevention

Unlike Hepatitis A & B, there is no vaccine to prevent someone from getting hepatitis C.

Some ways to reduce your risk of catching Hepatitis C are:

  • Never share any drug-injecting equipment with other people (not just needles, but also syringes, spoons, filters and water).
  • Don't share razors, toothbrushes or towels that might be contaminated with blood.
  • Use condoms to prevent getting or passing on the virus.

Free testing and vaccination signposting:

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is the most common type of viral hepatitis. It is more common in countries where sanitation and sewage disposal is poor but it can occur in the UK too. It is usually caught by putting something in your mouth that has been contaminated with the faeces of someone with Hepatitis A. It is usually a short-term (acute) infection and symptoms will pass within three months. There is no specific treatment for Hepatitis A but there is a vaccination that can protect you against Hepatitis A. If you are travelling to a country where the virus is common such as the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Central and South America, the Far East and Eastern Europe then you would be advised to have the vaccination before you travel.

The iAccess service offers Hepatitis A vaccinations for drug users who are engaged in treatment us. Injecting drug users are often more at risk of contracting Hepatitis A, B and C.

Hepatitis B

The Hepatitis B virus can be found in blood and body fluids, such as semen and vaginal fluids, so it can be spread during unprotected sex, by sharing needles to inject drugs, and from pregnant women to their babies.

Hepatitis B is more common in East Asia and Africa than it is in England and it is generally more common in certain groups such as injecting drug users.  Most people who become infected with Hepatitis B are able to fight off the virus and make a full recovery from the infection within a couple of months. However there is a small minority of people who develop a lifelong infection which is known as chronic Hepatitis B, which is treatable with antiviral medication.

The iAccess service offers Hepatitis A vaccinations for drug users who are engaged in treatment with us.

HIV

HIV is a virus which attacks the immune system and weakens someone’s ability to fight off infections and diseases. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. There is no cure for HIV but it is not a death sentence either. There are antiretroviral treatments to enable people who have the virus to live a healthy life. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is the stage when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. Early diagnosis and effective treatment means that most people with HIV won’t go on to develop AIDS.

It can be passed through blood-to-blood contact, either by having sexual intercourse with someone infected with the virus or sharing infected needles or other injecting equipment. There is also a risk of sharing items such as toothbrushes and razors with someone who has the virus. If a pregnant mother is HIV positive then they can also pass the virus to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.

Facts on HIV

  • HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat, urine, touch, kissing or hugging
  • The most common way of getting HIV in the UK is by anal or vaginal sex without using a condom
  • Geographically, the worst AIDS epidemic is in sub-Saharan Africa
  • HIV can survive in dried blood at room temperature for up to six days or for weeks if wet, such as in used syringes or needles.

HIV Testing

The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test. You can get tested at your local GUM clinic and at your GP surgery. The Terrence Higgins Trust also provides testing at some of their fastest centres and they also offer a free postal test kit.

The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the earlier you can start treatment and avoid becoming ill, so the sooner you get tested the better. If you think you’ve put yourself at risk of contracting HIV, get tested and see your GP as soon as possible.

The HIV tests in the UK generally involve taking a small sample of blood and sending this to a laboratory for analysis. These tests can provide a reliable result from four weeks after possible infection and results are usually available within a few days. If your test is positive, you will be referred to a specialist HIV clinic where you'll have more blood tests to show what effect HIV is having on your immune system and the chance to discuss treatment options.

Living with HIV

Although there is no cure for HIV there are antiretrovirals which are very effective; enabling people with HIV to live long and healthy lives.

Antiretrovirals work by stopping the virus duplicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage. These medicines come in tablet form and need to be taken daily. However, HIV is able to develop a resistance to antiretroviral medication very easily so it may need to be changed if it stops working, or taken in combination with others.

As part of your HIV treatment you will be encouraged to take regular exercise and eat a healthy diet to maintain a good immune system. Having yearly flu jabs and stopping smoking are also effective ways of minimising the risk of getting illnesses. If you choose not to have treatment your immune system will become severely damaged, leaving you vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and severe infections. This is known as late-stage HIV infection or AIDS.

Preventing HIV

Anyone who has sex without a condom or shares needles is at risk of HIV infection.

The best way to prevent passing or contracting HIV is to use a condom and to never share needles or other injecting equipment (including syringes, spoons and swabs). Knowing your HIV status and that of your partner is also important.

If you know you are HIV positive then it is your responsibility to inform any future sexual partners that you have the virus.