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Medical Pioneer: Baruch Blumberg

Hepatitis is swelling or infection of the liver. Infection happens when germs (like a virus) get inside the body and cause problems. There are two kinds of hepatitis:

Toxic hepatitis happens if someone drinks a lot of alcohol, takes drugs that are against the law (illegal), or comes in contact with poisons.

  • Viral hepatitis comes from the hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), or hepatitis C virus (HCV). These viruses are different, but they all hurt the liver.

Hepatitis A is the most common type of hepatitis for kids to get. The virus lives in poop from people who already have hepatitis A. That is why it is important to wash your hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. If you do not and then make yourself a sandwich, the hepatitis A virus might end up on your food and then in you!

Vegetables, fruits, and shellfish (like shrimp and lobster) also can carry hepatitis if they were gathered in dirty or polluted water or stored in unsanitary places. Hepatitis A lasts for a short time and does not come back once the person gets better.

You can keep from getting hepatitis A by:

  • washing your hands, especially after going to the bathroom or changing a baby’s diaper and before eating

  • washing fruits and vegetables before eating them

  • not eating uncooked shellfish, like raw oysters

  • getting the vaccine for hepatitis A

Getting vaccinated helps your body make antibodies (proteins that fight bad cells that make you sick) that protect you from getting hepatitis. The hepatitis A vaccine is given to all kids when they are between 1-2 years old and to people who are traveling to countries where the virus could get into the food and water.

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can last a long time in some people. Teens and young adults mostly get these two viruses.

Hepatitis B and C get passed from person to person by touching infected body fluids. Sometimes mothers with hepatitis B or C pass the virus to their babies when they are born. Hepatitis B or C can also get passed when getting a manicure or pedicure with nail clippers or other tools that have not been cleaned very well. Getting a tattoo with a dirty tattoo needle is another way that someone can get hepatitis B or C.

All babies get vaccinated against the hepatitis B virus, but there is no vaccine for hepatitis C yet.

Some people with hepatitis feel extra tired or like they have the flu (throwing up, feeling hot). Their skin and the whites of their eyes could look yellow, and they could have belly pain on the upper right side. Their pee could be dark brown, and their poop could be light colored.

Someone who has hepatitis will need to drink lots of fluids (like water), eat healthy foods, and get rest. The person's family may need to get hepatitis vaccines.

Later on, the person will get blood tests. Often, the blood tests will show that the person no longer has hepatitis. Sometimes, the blood tests may show that the person is now a carrier of hepatitis — the person will not have hepatitis symptoms but could pass the infection to other people.

Sometimes, blood tests will show that the person still has hepatitis B or C and will need to eat healthy foods and take very good care of themselves by getting rest and visiting the doctor regularly. Sometimes, the person may get special medicine.

Dr. Baruch (Barry) Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus and made the first hepatitis B vaccine. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in 1976. A Nobel Prize is one of a set of prizes that are given each year to people who have done important work in science, literature, economics, or for world peace.

Dr. Blumberg wondered if traits that are passed down from parents or grandparents (inherited) could make some people more likely to become sick from the same disease. He traveled around the world to collect blood samples from people from different parts of the world.

Since he did not have ways to study the blood samples, Dr. Blumberg looked at people who had another disease that is also inherited, called hemophilia. Hemophilia is a disease that keeps blood from clotting. Clotting makes you stop bleeding, like after a cut. People with hemophilia may bruise and bleed easily, and they may bleed a lot or for a long time after an injury.

Dr. Blumberg thought that people with hemophilia (hemophiliacs) who had received blood transfusions (blood from another person) would have received blood proteins that they had not inherited from their parents or grandparents but had been inherited by the blood donor (the person who gave blood for the transfusion). He thought that the hemophiliac’s immune system would make antibodies (proteins that attack the bad cells) against the blood from the blood donor.

He looked at blood samples of people who were born in different parts of the world who did not get the disease in the same way. In 1963 Dr. Blumberg discovered an antigen (a substance that causes an immune response) in the blood of an Australian Aboriginal person. Australian Aboriginals were the first people of Australia who came from southeast Asia over 50,000 years ago. Four years later Dr. Blumberg found that Australian Aboriginal antigen to be part of a virus that causes hepatitis B.

A virologist is a scientist who studies viruses and the diseases caused by them. A microbiologist is a scientist who studies bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, and some types of parasites to understand how these organisms live, grow, and interact with their environments.

Irving Millman was a virologist and microbiologist who worked with Baruch Blumberg and helped create a test to find hepatitis B in blood. This test is used by blood banks to see if the hepatitis B virus is in the blood of a blood donor, so doctors will know not to give that blood to anyone else.

Blumberg and Millman found that the blood of people with the hepatitis B virus had particles on the outside coating of the virus. The coating does not spread infection, but it can cause an immune response. An immune response is a reaction of the cells and fluids to a substance that the body does not recognize. To create a vaccine, Blumberg and Millman invented a way to take the coating off of the virus.

World Hepatitis Day takes place every year on July 28, which is Dr. Blumberg's birthday. It's a time to become more aware of hepatitis and its risks.

Remember to love your liver by washing your hands and making smart choices!


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