Washing your hands is one of the best ways to protect against this serious liver disease

Are you traveling to another country, such as Mexico, Africa, Central or South America, Asia (except Japan) or Eastern Europe? Do you have children in a daycare center, work directly with children or help ill adults? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should consider receiving the hepatitis A vaccine.

Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. It is the most common type of hepatitis and it can range from mild “flu-like” symptoms to sudden and severe onset liver failure. One in five people are actually hospitalized because of hepatitis A. Some common symptoms are feeling very tired, sick to your stomach, losing weight without trying, pain on the right side of the belly, under the rib cage, a fever or sore muscles. Additionally, older adults may have jaundice (yellow skin), along with dark urine and clay-colored stools.

How is hepatitis A spread? The virus is found in the stool of an infected person. It is spread when a person eats food or drinks water that has come in contact with infected stool. This can happen when an employee with hepatitis A does not wash his or her hands after using the bathroom and then prepares food. The same is true in a daycare center when workers do not wash their hands after changing a diaper.

Another way of contracting hepatitis A is by eating raw oysters or undercooked clams. Similarly, if you travel to a country where hepatitis A is common and you eat uncooked foods or drink tap water, you may contract the virus.


A simple way you can protect yourself from hepatitis A is to get the vaccine. This involves a series of two shots and they are usually 100 percent effective when you get them both before you are exposed to the virus.

A vaccine, like any medicine, could possibly cause serious problems, such as a severe allergic reaction. However, the risk of hepatitis A vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small and getting a shot is much safer than getting the disease.

Some mild problems include soreness where the shot was given, headache, loss of appetite, and tiredness. Severe problems, which are very rare, would be an allergic reaction that would occur within a few minutes to a few hours of the shot. Signs of a serious allergic reaction can include difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat or dizziness.

There are certain people in the community who should be routinely vaccinated with the hepatitis A vaccine. First, all children age 1, and anyone age 1 and older traveling to or working in countries with high or intermediate prevalence of hepatitis A. Some of these countries are listed at the beginning of this article, but you should consult your physician for more information.

Next, all children and adolescents 18 years of age who live in states or communities where routine vaccination has been implemented because of high disease incidences should receive the vaccine. Lastly, persons who fall within the following groups should also receive the vaccine: men who have sex with men, addicts who use street drugs, people who are treated with clotting factor concentrates and those with chronic liver disease.

There are also certain members of the population who should not receive the vaccine. First, anyone who has ever had a severe (life-threatening) allergic reaction to a previous dose of hepatitis A vaccine should not get another dose. Anyone who has a severe (life threatening) allergy to any vaccine components should not get the vaccine. Next, anyone who is moderately or severely ill at the time the shot is scheduled should probably wait until they recover. Lastly, the safety of the hepatitis A vaccine for pregnant woman has not been determined. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that it is harmful to either pregnant women or their unborn babies and the risk, if any, is thought to be very low.

It is important to note that you can only get the hepatitis A virus once and it does not lead to long-term liver problems. After it is contracted, your body builds up a defense against it. It can, as previously explained, be prevented totally if certain precautions are taken and the vaccine is received. If you meet the criteria listed above, please contact your healthcare provider to learn more.

This column is provided by the Richmond County Medical Society. Dr. Scafuri is a member of the Society, and specializes in infectious disease. He maintains a practice in West Brighton.