BY THELMA KING THIEL, R.N.
Hepatitis is 100 times more contagious than AIDS. Each of the three most prevalent types of hepatitis inflames the liver—our body’s power plant—in the short term. In the long-term, hepatitis A, B and C can cause serious liver damage that could necessitate a liver transplant. Here is what you need to know to protect your child.
It’s unfortunate when people—especially children—contract a serious illness. But when that disease could have been prevented through education or immunization, it’s tragic. Unfortunately, most people have virtually no knowledge about the liver, a vital organ that has been largely forgotten in school. But the discovery of hepatitis—a virus that has infected more than three million Americans, including one in every 250 – 300 children over the age of 12—has focused long overdue attention on the need for education about the liver, the way hepatitis viruses are spread, and ways to avoid contracting them.
We all know that the heart is our body’s pump; the lungs a bellows; the brain, a personal computer. But what about the liver? It is called a non-complaining organ since it does not have a mechanism for warning its owner of trouble. The liver is the body’s internal power plant, the engine that keeps you on the go. It is tucked up under your ribs for protection on the right side of your body. It converts the food you eat into muscle and the possibly thousands of elements that keep you alive and alert. You would not have been able to get out of bed this morning, think, or even talk if your liver had not released some of the energy it had stored from the meal you ate last night.
Your liver makes clotting factors to stop cuts from bleeding. When you get sick, your liver filters out bacteria to help your body fight off the infection. It makes immune factors that protect you from the sea of germs that surround you.
When you inhale toxic smoke or fumes, when chemicals—such as those found in bug sprays—get on your skin, when you drink alcohol and ingest drugs (licit or illicit, prescription or over-the-counter) the liver filters out the toxins that could cause serious liver damage. Drugs and alcohol can kill liver cells, turning them into scar tissue called cirrhosis. If the damage to liver cells continues, eventually you will not have enough healthy liver cells to carry on the thousands of functions essential to your body and your life.
Children should learn why washing their hands after going to the bathroom is important. They should understand that a virus, called hepatitis A, can live in the intestines of an infected person and be discharged in feces (stool). If even the smallest particle of the virus remains on the infected person’s hands, and that person handles food shared with others, the virus can be ingested and the person eating it can become sick with hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B and C are found in blood and can be spread easily through any break in the skin by a contaminated needle, razor or body-piercing instrument. It can be spread from an infected mother to her newborn baby during delivery. Babies infected at birth have a 95 percent chance of becoming chronically infected, leading to cirrhosis and cancer of the liver. All babies should receive Hepatitis B vaccine at birth, which will provide protection for 18 or more years. This virus is spread easily sexually and is 100 times more infectious than AIDS.
Although hepatitis C is not easily spread sexually, it can be spread that way; however, it is spread mainly by injecting drugs. This slowly progressing disease may take 20 to 30 years to cause serious complications, such as cirrhosis and possibly cancer. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but many people with this virus will have a normal life expectancy and succumb to something other than hepatitis C. However, that depends heavily on assessing their own past risk behaviors, asking their healthcare provider to test their blood for hepatitis viruses, and if infected, to stop drinking any alcohol at all. Alcohol speeds liver damage in people who have hepatitis C.
Your liver works 24/7 as your personal power plant and guardian angel, helping you stay alive and healthy. When smoke, drugs, alcohol, viruses, and germs have destroyed too many vitally important liver cells, your body simply cannot function. Avoiding liver damaging activities, eating healthy, and exercising regularly will help keep your liver healthy.
How to talk to your kids about their liver
Your liver has trillions of cells that serve as the employees in your personal power plant. They protect you from smoke or fumes that you breathe in, or chemicals that may get on your skin. They remove the poisons in alcohol and drugs, and filter out bacteria that could make you very sick. They turn the food you eat into muscles, energy, and hormones, and store vitamins, minerals and sugar until your body needs it.
What can you do to help your liver do all those wonderful things that keep you alive and healthy?
- Alcohol and drugs kill off the workers in your power plant, your liver. Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs (other than those prescribed by a doctor).
- Avoid breathing in fumes that can harm your liver.
- Never touch anyone else’s blood. It may have germs in it that could make you sick.
- Don’t share toothbrushes, razors, or anything that breaks your skin. This also means tattoo needles or body piercing instruments that may have been used on someone who has hepatitis or AIDS.
- Always wash your hands with soap and water and especially after using the toilet. Soap bubbles wash germs away.
- Eat healthy food and exercise to keep your liver strong.#
Thelma King Thiel, R.N., the founder, chair, and CEO of HFI, is committed to reaching children as early as possible with critical prevention messages that could save their lives or their livers. Ms. Thiel became interested in liver wellness nearly 30 years ago, when a rare liver disease claimed the life of her infant son, Dean. His death, and the lack of available information about the liver and its diseases, inspired her to help create the American Liver Foundation. She served as its president and chief operating officer for 15 years, then founded the Silver Spring, Maryland-based HFI in 1994.