Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Health Tip: The A-B-Cs Of Hepatitis

This is the Hepatitis C virus, not Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

First of all, let me state (again) that I'm neither a doctor nor a medical expert on anything other than on a personal level, and I also believe strongly that we're all responsible for doing the research and legwork to protect ourselves when whenever possible. What I'm posting here is what I've learned from sources I feel are reliable for me, and I urge you yourselves to do some cursory investigating on the subject at the very least. In this case knowledge truly is power.

This is a portion of Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

When traveling to any third world country (and many would agree that on a good day most of Thailand qualifies as such) there's a possibility you may unwittingly be exposed to some unpleasant diseases. If you're one who ventures out into the less tamed parts of the city or country that possibility factor increases more.  If you're having unprotected intimate contact or sharing bodily fluids with someone (say, oh, I don't know... a Rented Admirer, maybe) the factor skyrockets.

Leave the usual STDs out of the mix today, and let's look at something you might not think of unless you've done some homework; something you can catch by eating or drinking regular things: Hepatitis.  There are five or more types, but we'll stick with the most common three - A, B & C - and while there's some protection available for A and B there's no prophylaxis for C, and not much care available for ANY of them, to my knowledge.  You'll more than likely fight off type A in a couple of months, but B and C wreak havoc and are deadly more often.

The less troublesome of the three types of hepatitis is "A", something many of us are exposed to as children (when it doesn't cause nearly as much of a problem), don't show severe symptoms from and naturally develop antibodies against, giving us protection later in life. A simple test to see if you've created the antibodies can indicate whether inoculation is called for. If it is, it's a simple matter of three shots over six months or so.  Easy. The Thai used to have far higher rates of infection of type A, but other than the border regions - say near the Myanmar border, where the rate of those exposed is in the high 90th percentile - education and better hygienic practices have helped throughout Thailand.

Tattoo art by... who knows?
Hepatitis-B is a little more difficult for your body to deal with, but since 1982 there has been a vaccine that's 90% effective in preventing infection. The Bangkok Post reported last July that 1 in 20 Thai are infected with "B", and that it's far easier to transmit than HIV, the virus that usually leads to AIDS. Type B can become chronic if untreated. It often leads to liver failure and increases your chance of liver cancer by 100 to 700%.  If you plan to venture into the countryside of any third world country it's wise to check into immunization for it.  They're not cheap, but it's your life you're protecting here.

Hepatitis-B can easily be transmitted through bodily fluids (think semen and vaginal secretions) and through blood.  My guess is that most of you aren't sharing needles with someone, but some of you do get tattoos while in the Land of Smiles.  Goodness knows there are any number of shops in tourist areas offering to do the work for you, and regardless of how clean any shop is reputed to be you're flying on faith.  Don't forget the "inked" person you're bedding down with there might not have been quite as careful who did their tattoo, carries it in their system and guess what?

Oh.  OK. You guessed.

One of the easiest ways BOTH Hepatitis- A and B are transmitted on a wider range is food and water contaminated in one way or another by fecal matter. Unwashed hands or unclean water are usually the culprit. You can wash your hands thoroughly after using the hong nam when you're out and about in Thailand, but you have to find soap first, and that's sometimes not easy.  It's the same for the locals - just harder to find the correct tools.

Those of you who will line the streets for the wild festivities of Songkran in another week might keep in mind that the water being thrown, sprayed and shot at you may have come from whatever nearby canal was handy.  It's a safe bet it wasn't bottled water, that's for sure.

By the way - this is NOT intended to be a panic report - just a reality check. Leave other travel out of it - I've spent at least eight months wandering around Thailand over the last decade or so, and while I'm more adventurous than most of you would be (I'm just guessing here) I haven't caught anything more exotic than a number of cases of diarrhea - knock on wood - but it's just common sense if you're thinking of really experiencing Thailand (or Mexico, or Vietnam, or Laos, or...) that you take the precautions and don't bring any biological souvenirs home with you.

See your doctor, call your county or government health department, make the appointment well in advance and let them tell you what's recommended for you... then follow through on it.  It's worth the time.

No comments: