Hepatitis—a condition causing liver inflammation—has become an alarming public health issue in Asia. With numerous causes ranging from infections to toxins, it’s a disease that does not spare even the youngest members of society.
In this context, understanding the various aspects of hepatitis in children is crucial for effective prevention and treatment. This article gets insights from Dr Ong Sik Yong, a Paediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology Consultant at Sunway Medical Centre,
The Different Faces of Hepatitis
There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus—A, B, C, D, and E. Each virus behaves differently in transmission and, therefore, calls for varied prevention strategies.
Acute hepatitis typically resolves with adequate treatment, but some patients may experience acute liver failure, a life-threatening condition. Chronic hepatitis, often due to Hepatitis B or C, can be stealthy and more dangerous, leading to severe long-term consequences such as liver cirrhosis and cancer.
Spotting the Signs: When to Consult a Doctor
Acute hepatitis usually presents noticeable symptoms such as jaundice, dark-coloured urine, and extreme fatigue. Children may also experience nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In contrast, chronic hepatitis can be silent for years, making it essential for high-risk individuals to undergo regular medical screenings.
“Children with acute or chronic liver disease will require an appropriate medical examination to identify the cause before specific treatment can be offered. There are also certain liver diseases, such as autoimmune hepatitis, where certain medications may be used to regulate the over-active immune system, which will prevent further attacks on the liver,” says Dr Ong. Blood and liver function tests can further elucidate the condition and guide treatment options.
Transmission Alert: Stay Informed
Different strains have different modes of transmission. Contaminated food and water often transmit Hepatitis A and E. In contrast, direct contact with infected body fluids usually spreads Hepatitis B, C, and D. “The virus is most commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth and delivery, in early childhood, as well as through contact with blood or other body fluids during sex with an infected partner, unsafe injections or exposures to sharp instruments”, Dr Ong stated.
Vaccination: A Proven Shield
Vaccination is highly effective, especially against Hepatitis A and B. Malaysia’s Hepatitis B vaccination programme, initiated in 1989, has reduced infection rates to just 0.01%. “All newborn babies are recommended to receive the first Hepatitis B vaccination as soon as possible after birth, preferably within 24 hours of birth, and they should also receive two subsequent vaccine boosters to be completed by six months of age,” recommends Dr Ong.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) discourages booster shots for those who have completed the full vaccination course, focusing instead on primary prevention through vaccination of newborns.
Ongoing Challenges: The Strains Without Vaccines
Sadly, vaccines are not yet available for Hepatitis C, D, and E. It is crucial to adopt other preventive measures such as safe food and water practices, regular medical check-ups, and avoiding risky behaviours.
Practising Caution: Medicine and Supplements
Dr Ong advises against using drugs with unknown safety profiles. He also warns against misusing prescribed medication and over-the-counter drugs. Such misuse can lead to liver injury.
Conclusion: Combating Hepatitis Takes a Village
Preventing hepatitis in children, particularly in Asia, requires concerted efforts from medical professionals, governments, and the community. While vaccinations offer hope, we must maintain a multidimensional approach that includes education, regular screening, and preventive healthcare.