What it’s like to be a mum with hepatitis
“Being a mum can be stressful at the best of times, but when you have hepatitis, there’s an added layer of worry that most people don’t even know about,” says Natalia Jeleva, who’s been carrying the hepatitis B virus for her entire adult life.
It all began back in 1995 in Bulgaria, when the normally energetic 17-year-old suddenly felt extremely weak and started having unexplained pain in her back. After a blood test confirmed that Natalia had hepatitis B, the doctor traced it back to a hospital appointment that she’d had for some allergy tests a few months earlier. As Natalia hadn’t been involved in any other high-risk situations like sexual activity or injections from drug use, and none of her family members had the virus, the previous hospital visit was the only logical explanation. Unfortunately this wasn’t the first time the doctor had seen a hepatitis case arise because of unhygienic hospital conditions.
“When we got the news my mum freaked out, but I was too young at the time to realise how serious it was,” recalls Natalia. She didn’t know what her mum knew: that the virus, which causes infection and inflammation in the liver, could potentially lead to scarring (cirrhosis) and even cancer. Moreover, she didn’t know how it would affect her experience as a mother one day. Not only would she have to regularly monitor her own health; she would have to constantly think about keeping her husband and children safe from infection, too.
One of the most common ways of getting hepatitis B is passing it from mother to baby during childbirth. “In both my pregnancies, I had to tell the doctors about the hepatitis straight away so they could monitor me regularly. When I was pregnant with my twins a couple of years ago, the medical staff did blood tests once a month. The monitoring was less frequent when I had my son 11 years ago, but they still did it. All three children had to get vaccinated as soon as they were born. In terms of my health, the doctors strongly advised me not to have any more kids because the hepatitis can flare up again during pregnancy and cause serious liver damage,” she says.
Natalia also has to be careful on a daily basis: even an invisible amount of her blood could pass the virus to the others, so in her household accidentally picking up the wrong toothbrush or razor could be a fatal mistake. She also has to watch her diet to make sure she doesn’t put too much stress on her liver, so fried fish and chips washed down with a nice cold beer are out of the question.
Natalia is one of the 400 million people in the world infected with hepatitis. The five types ‒ A, B, C, D and E ‒ all attack the liver and are spread in different ways (see table). People can get Hepatitis B, C and D from the blood, semen and other body fluids of an infected person. For example, they could get it through direct contact with open sores of an infected person or by using their razor, or as mentioned earlier, through sexual activity. The hepatitis A and E viruses are spread by poor food hygiene, unsafe water and unsanitary conditions.
Natalia calls hepatitis “a silent killer” because many carriers don’t even realise they have it. This means they can pass it to others, including their children. Symptoms often don’t start appearing until the virus had already caused irreversible liver damage. The good news is that a simple blood test can give you the peace of mind that you’re not a hepatitis carrier, and you can get vaccinated for types A and B (the B vaccination also covers hepatitis D).
Despite the negatives that constantly weigh on her mind, Natalia feels she was incredibly lucky to have found out that she had hepatitis B when she did, thanks to a simple blood test. Natalia, her husband and their three children have regular checks to make sure all is OK, even though her husband and children keep their vaccinations up to date. Natalia’s twice yearly checks include bloodwork as well as ultrasound scans. “I’ve been through serious dark times with it. But if you monitor yourself regularly, then you can have a clear mind. If I only had one message to give people, it would be to ‘please get tested’. It’s so easy.”
Type of viral hepatitis Mode of transmission/prevention
Hepatitis A,(HAV) Contaminated food and water,There is an HAV vaccine
Hepatitis B,(HBV) Infected blood, sex and needlesFrom an infected mother to her newbornThere is an HBV vaccine
Hepatitis C,(HCV) Infected blood and needlesThere is no vaccine
Hepatitis D,(HDV) Must already have HBVInfected blood, sex and needlesFrom an infected mother to her newbornGet the HBV vaccine
Hepatitis E,(HEV) Contaminated water There is no vaccine