Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is an infectious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. It's rare in New Zealand, but more common in developing countries. If you're travelling overseas, ask your doctor if you need the hepatitis A vaccination.

Summary

The hepatitis A virus is spread by contact with the faeces (poos) of an infected person. It can be passed on through:

  • poor personal hygiene – such as when people don’t wash their hands properly
  • contaminated food – such as from an infected food handler, raw shellfish, commercially prepared salads, fruit, vegetables and imported frozen berries
  • close personal contact – including sexual contact.

The most infectious period for hepatitis A is usually from 2 weeks before jaundice (skin yellowing) starts until 1 week after. If you have hepatitis A you should stay away from school, early childhood centre and work for 7 days from the onset of jaundice

Symptoms

If you’ve caught hepatitis A, it will take 15–50 days for the symptoms to develop.

Early symptoms of hepatitis A infection can be mistaken for the flu. Some people, especially children, may have no symptoms at all.

As the illness develops, the symptoms are:

  • fever
  • jaundice (yellow discolouration of the eyes and/or skin)
  • anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • nausea
  • abdominal discomfort
  • malaise (fatigue, feeling tired)
  • dark urine.

See your doctor, or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 for advice if you think you might have hepatitis A. There’s a blood test which can check for the disease.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. In most cases, your immune system will clear the infection and your liver will completely heal. Treatment options include:

  • rest – hepatitis A can make you tired
  • protect your liver – the liver processes medication and alcohol, so avoid alcohol and review any medication with your doctor.

Prevention

Vaccination

Hepatitis A is rare in New Zealand, but if you’re planning to travel, you should consider getting immunised. Vaccination against hepatitis A is available at a cost.

Talk to your doctor if you are planning travel in high or moderate-risk areas, as immunisation is recommended.

  • High-risk areas include Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Middle East.
  • Moderate-risk areas include the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe (including Russia) and parts of the Pacific.

Food safety

Always wash your hands before eating, handling, or preparing food. The Ministry for Primary Industries recommends that you briefly boil any frozen berries before eating them.

If you’re cooking with berries, make sure that cooking exceeds 85°C for at least one minute. Simply washing the berries is not enough to deactivate the virus.

Risks associated with hepatitis A

  • There are usually no long-term issues associated with hepatitis A, most people recover completely. Rarely, hepatitis A can lead to complications such as liver failure and death.

Risks associated with the vaccine

  • No serious adverse events among children or adults can be attributed to the vaccine.

For information about travel vaccines, contact your GP or a travel medicine specialist.

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