Hepatitis A, caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV), is an illness that affects the liver. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), of the 35,000 who contract the disease each year, about 100 die. Symptoms, which usually occur in the middle of a 15-50 day range following exposure, typically include fever, fatigue, nausea, darkened urine, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, typically develops several days later. While in most cases these go away within two months, in some instances they last as long as six.
The virus’s most common means of transmission is fecal to oral contact. This occurs either due to touching a person who has been infected with HAV (even if symptoms are not yet visible) or by consuming food or drink that is HAV-contaminated. The disease is most communicable from two weeks prior to the onset of symptoms until approximately a week after the jaundice appears. Person to person contact transmits the disease when persons place any contaminated object into their mouths or touch a contaminated surface and then place their fingers in their mouths. Contact with household members of sexual partners is a common means of transmission, while casual contact with people is highly unlikely to spread the illness. When food service professionals and others that handle food become infected and then fail to properly wash their hands, food may become contaminated.
Diagnosis can only take place by means of a blood test. Recovery can be aided by rest and drinking fluids, but there is no medication or treatment method that effectively combats the disease. Most make a full recovery after experiencing the illness and the body produces anti-bodies which prevent the individual from contracting the virus again. In a small number of cases, symptoms will last 6-9 months due to relapse or other complications.
Prevention is often a matter of simple hygiene. Individuals should wash their hands with hot water and soap after using the bathroom, changing a diaper (or any other contact with fecal matter), and before food preparation. Those who are already infected should not prepare food to prevent the spread of the disease. The best defense is a vaccine, which is licensed in the US and recommended for those at higher risk for contracting the disease or at a higher risk for becoming serious ill if they do. There are preparations of antibodies (immune globulin) that can be used to provide short term protection.