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Hepatitis A

Overview :

Hepatitis A was previously known as infectious hepatitis because it spread relatively easily from those infected to close household contacts. Once the infection ends, there is no lasting, chronic phase of illness. However it is not uncommon to have a second episode of symptoms about a month after the first; this is called a relapse, but it is not clear that the virus persists when symptoms recur. Both children and adults may be infected by HAV. Children are the chief victims, but very often have no more than a flu-like illness or no symptoms at all (so-called "subclinical" infection), whereas adults are far likelier to have more severe symptoms.

Epidemics of HAV infection can infect dozens and even hundreds (or, on rare occasions, thousands) of persons. In the public's mind, outbreaks of hepatitis A usually are linked with the eating of contaminated food at a restaurant. It is true that food-handlers, who may themselves have no symptoms, can start an alarming, widespread epidemic. Many types of food can be infected by sewage containing HAV, but shellfish, such as clams and oysters, are common culprits.

Apart from contaminated food and water, certain groups are at increased risk of getting infectious hepatitis:

  • Children at day care centers make up an estimated 14-40% of all cases of HAV infection in the United States. Changing diapers transmits infection through fecal-oral contact. Toys and other objects may remain contaminated for some time. Often a child without symptoms brings the infection home to siblings and parents.
  • Troops living under crowded conditions at military camps or in the field. During World War II there were an estimated five million cases in German soldiers and civilians.
  • Anyone living in heavily populated and squalid conditions, such as the very poor and those placed in refugee or prisoner-of-war camps.
  • Homosexual men are increasingly at risk of HAV infection from oral-anal sexual contact.
  • Travelers visiting an area where hepatitis A is common are at risk of becoming ill.

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