In the U.S., the risk of contracting viral hepatitis has fallen sharply in
recent years. The risk is higher for Americans who travel abroad -- especially
to regions where hepatitis is prevalent and sanitation is poor.
“Travelers who go to non-urban areas of developing countries are most likely
to get infected,” says Scott D. Holmberg, MD, chief of the epidemiology and
surveillance branch of the division of viral hepatitis at the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. But it’s possible to contract
hepatitis even during a stay in a luxury hotel.
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Several types of hepatitis have been identified. The main types are
hepatitis A, B, and C.
Hepatitis A spreads by fecal-oral contact. This can occur by
consuming food or beverages contaminated with even tiny amounts of virus-laden
feces, or through close personal contact with someone who has hepatitis A. Most
people with hepatitis A recover fully within a matter of weeks or months.
Hepatitis B and C spread through contact with infected blood (and, in
the case of B, other body fluids). This can occur via sexual contact with
someone who has hepatitis B or C, by sharing personal items (nail trimmers,
razors, drug paraphernalia, etc.) of an infected person, or from dirty
hypodermic needles or transfusions of blood that wasn’t screened for hepatitis.
Hepatitis B and C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and
What can you do to minimize your risk of contracting hepatitis while
traveling abroad? Here are eight strategies.
1. Get vaccinated.
Safe, effective vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B, though not yet
for hepatitis C. Some experts say vaccination makes sense for just about anyone
who leaves the country. “Anyone who travels abroad frequently should probably
be vaccinated,” says Melissa Palmer, MD, clinical professor of medicine at New
York University School of Medicine.
The hepatitis A vaccine is typically given in two doses six months apart.
The hepatitis B vaccine is typically given to adults in three doses spread over
six months, and to children in three or four doses spread over six to 18
Adults are also eligible to get a combined vaccine given in three doses over
If you don’t have time for all of the injections before embarking on a trip,
get the first injection. That way, you’ll have at least partial immunity.
Another possibility is to ask the doctor about getting all of the injections on
an accelerated schedule.
2. Know your destination.
Your risk of contracting hepatitis is small if you’re traveling to Canada,
Japan, Western Europe, or another area where the disease isn’t prevalent and
where sanitation is good.
But travel to a developing country where hepatitis is prevalent calls for