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.
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 death.
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 months.
Adults are also eligible to get a combined vaccine given in three doses over six months.
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 extra vigilance.