Hepatitis A is a vaccine preventable acute (short-term but quite severe) infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. Symptoms can be debilitating but most people infected with hepatitis A recover completely. Once you have had hepatitis A you cannot get it again.
Hepatitis A occurs worldwide and is spread through the faecal-oral route (or when infected faecal matter enters the mouth). In developing countries most people are infected during childhood due to poor sanitation. With good sanitation and hygiene in the developed world, most people now reach adulthood without being exposed to hepatitis A virus.
The hepatitis A virus can survive in the environment on hands for several hours and in food kept at room temperature for considerably longer and is relatively resistant to detergents. In Australia infection with hepatitis A from contaminated food or water is rare, and is more likely in circumstances such as:
- In child day-care centres and pre-schools
- Amongst men who have sex with men
- Amongst people who inject drugs
- In residential facilities for people with intellectual disabilities
- For travellers to countries where the infection is common (Asia, Africa, South-Pacific, Central and South America).
In Australia, there are approximately 300–500 cases of hepatitis A reported per year. The number of cases reported has been declining nationally since the late 1990s and at the same time the real number of hepatitis A infections is likely to be more than the number of infections reported. This is because many people with hepatitis A do not have obvious symptoms, do not go to the doctor and so are not diagnosed.