The world is facing a new outbreak of unexplained acute hepatitis infections affecting children. According to the World Health Organization, this year between April 5 and May 26, 650 probable cases of acute hepatitis have been reported in children from 33 countries.

This new outbreak has brought attention to the thousands of acute viral hepatitis infections that occur among children, adolescents and adults every year. Most acute hepatitis infections cause mild disease and often can go undetected; however, in some cases these viruses can lead to complications and be fatal.

World Hepatitis Day is observed each year on July 28 to raise awareness of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. Heavy alcohol use, exposure to toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis. However, hepatitis is often caused by a virus. According to the Center for Disease Control, the most common types of viral hepatitis in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C.

Hepatitis A can be spread through sexual contact or through food or drinking water that is carrying the virus through bits of fecal matter from an infected person. This form of hepatitis does not lead to a chronic infection and usually has no complications. The liver usually heals from hepatitis A within several months.

Hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer and it is estimated that 850,000 people in the United States are currently living with it. Hepatitis B spreads through contact with blood, semen or other body fluids from an infected person. This viral infection can range from a mild illness, lasting a few weeks, to a serious, life-long (chronic) condition.

Hepatitis C is the most common in the United States, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people, with 50 percent unaware they are infected. The virus is transmitted through needles or syringes, blood transfusions and through birth from the mother. More than 50 percent of people who get infected develop a chronic infection.

Both Hepatitis A and B have vaccines and are administered during infancy or before the age of 2. Unfortunately, Hepatitis C does not have a vaccine at this time.

Hepatitis symptoms include a fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice.

Most people recover from hepatitis, and the disease is often preventable. However, it is still considered a serious health risk because it can destroy liver tissue, spread easily, weaken the immune system, cause liver failure or cancer, and in rare cases, death.

There are many ways you can reduce your chances of getting hepatitis. Get available vaccines, practice protective sex, don’t share needles, practice good hand hygiene, don’t share personal care items, take precautions when getting tattoos/piercings and when traveling to areas of the world with poor sanitation.

Although the current hepatitis outbreak does not appear to belong to any of the known hepatitis viruses, according to the World Health Organization, it is still important to be proactive against the virus.

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Dr. Stephen Phillipson is the Aspirus regional director of hospital medicine.