Did you read that Dr. Jack Kevorkian recently died? The descendant of Armenian immigrants, Kevorkian gained fame in the early 1990s when he helped people with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis commit suicide by injecting themselves with lethal drugs that he supplied.
He is said to have helped 130 people kill themselves. These actions eventually resulted in a prison sentence where he served eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence. He was released on parole in 2007 for health reasons on the condition that he not participate in any more assisted suicides.
Unable to help himself by the same deadly methods, Kevorkian, 83, spent the final weeks of his life in a hospital where he was so weak he couldn’t even lift his head off the pillow.
He died of an apparent pulmonary thrombosis, although he was hospitalized for hepatitis C, from which he long had suffered and which had led to liver cancer and end-stage liver disease.
Kevorkian was one of more than 4 million Americans with hepatitis C. Caused by a blood-borne virus that survives in the blood stream of an infected person, hepatitis C can be spread through contact to someone else, usually by an exposure that enters the bloodstream of another person, such as by injecting drugs with needles or syringes that have been shared with someone infected with hepatitis C.
Most people associate hepatitis with jaundice (yellow eyes or skin), but not everyone knows that hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. The inflammation can be caused by infections from bacteria, viruses or parasites, but chemical toxins (alcohol, drugs or poisonous mushrooms) also can cause inflammation and damage of the liver.
An overdose of Tylenol (acetaminophen) has been known to cause a rare but extremely dangerous form of hepatitis. It is, therefore, very important to take Tylenol as directed. In addition to these causes, immune cells in the body can attack the liver and cause autoimmune hepatitis.
Hepatitis can last a short period of time (acute) or cause long-term (chronic) disease. In some instances, progressive liver damage or liver failure can result.
The cause of the liver damage and any other illnesses the person may have definitely influence the incidence and severity of hepatitis. Common risk factors include alcohol use, intravenous drug use, Tylenol overdose, risky sexual behaviors and ingestion of contaminated foods. Common types of hepatitis include the following:
Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. In addition to getting hepatitis A directly from infected people, you can get hepatitis A by swallowing contaminated water or ice; eating raw shellfish harvested from sewage-contaminated water; or eating fruits, vegetables or other food that may have become contaminated during handling
Three of every four adults who get hepatitis A have symptoms that usually develop over a period of several days. Children who are infected often have no symptoms.
A person can spread hepatitis A about one week before symptoms appear and during the first week of symptoms, although people with no symptoms still can spread the virus.
Approximately 1.25 million Americans chronically are infected with Hepatitis B, and it is estimated that 20-30 percent acquired their infection in childhood. It is believed that approximately 400,000,000 people are chronic carriers of the virus worldwide. Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than the AIDS virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 20 people in the United States will get infected with hepatitis B some time during their lives.
You can get hepatitis B by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person, which means you can become infected by having sex or sharing needles with an infected person. It also is possible for a baby to get hepatitis from an infected mother during childbirth.
More than 170 million people worldwide have been infected with the hepatitis C virus. It can cause both acute and chronic infection, and about one-third of adults with the acute infection develop clinical symptoms and jaundice. Most patients with chronic hepatitis C have few if any symptoms, but the most common symptom is fatigue, which may come and go.
Major long-term complications of chronic hepatitis C are cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer. These develop in most patients only after many years or decades of infection.
This form of hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis delta virus, which only can survive or exist in a person who has hepatitis B. The transmission of hepatitis D occurs through the same blood, sexual and mother/new baby prenatal sources as hepatitis B.
A patient can acquire the hepatitis D virus the same way as hepatitis B, or they can get the hepatitis D virus at a later time from a new source of infection.
Hepatitis E is an acute disease very similar to hepatitis A in that it occurs mainly by contamination of food and water. It is not spread through needles, blood, other body fluids or sexual contact. Approximately 30-80 percent of adult patients will have symptoms of jaundice. Some also will have flu-like aches and body pains.
First discovered in 1995, hepatitis G will cause a persistent infection in about 15-30 percent of adults. Hepatitis G cases have been identified in Australia, Asia, Europe and North America.
It is transmissible via blood transfusion and also can be acquired by exposure to blood and blood products.
Other forms of inflammation of the liver include autoimmune hepatitis, drug-induced hepatitis and alcoholic hepatitis.
Prevention measures against hepatitis include avoiding drug and alcohol abuse as well as:
1. Avoiding contact with blood or blood products.
2. Avoiding sexual contact with a person infected with hepatitis or a person with unknown health history. Practice safe sex behaviors.
3. Using good hand-washing practices.
4. Avoiding IV drug use. If you already are an IV drug user, never share needles and seek help from a needle-exchange or drug-treatment program as soon as possible.
5. Considering the risks if thinking about getting a tattoo or body piercing. It is possible to get infected from tools that have someone else’s blood on them or if the artist or piercer does not follow good health practices.
6. Remember: Hepatitis A and B vaccines are available for people in high-risk groups.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.