What is it?
Hepatitis B is an infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV for short). There are at least five types of hepatitis virus, namely A to E. HBV infection is quite common and the virus is carried in the body fluids of infected people.
Infection is thus spread through contact with infected body fluids such as during sex and by sharing needles as is the case with illicit drug users. Infection can also pass from an infected pregnant woman to her baby.
What are the symptoms?
The virus is described as hepatotrophic because it attacks the liver (‘hepato’ for liver). The damage to the liver is responsible for most of the symptoms that may occur. It is however not very common to have symptoms of hepatitis B, but these are some of them:
• Loss of appetite
• Body aches and pains
• A rash
• Darker urine than usual
• Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice)
Some people become long-term carriers of the virus (called ‘chronic carriers’), but don’t become ill themselves. They can still pass on this virus to others.
How serious is it?
Most people recover from hepatitis B without treatment. But in a few people it becomes serious and lasts for a long time. Babies and children are more likely to have the serious form of the illness.
Over time, the liver may swell up and fail (i.e. stop working). The virus is also capable of making the liver cells become cancerous or become damaged and shrink
What can I do to protect myself?
If you are at risk of catching hepatitis B, you may want to consider having a vaccine to prevent it. The vaccine has been proven to be very effective across all age groups. You are at higher risk if you are:
• Travelling to or living in parts of the world where hepatitis B is common (including parts of Southeast Asia, most of the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazon, parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and some countries in Eastern Europe)
• An injecting drug user, especially if you share needles with other people
• A sexual partner or child of an injecting drug user, or of someone with hepatitis B
• Someone who changes sexual partners frequently, especially if they have unprotected sex
• A man who has unprotected sex with men. Having anal sex puts you at greater risk of getting hepatitis B.
• Sharing a house with someone who has hepatitis B
• Working in a job that increases your chance of coming into contact with the virus – for example, if you work as a healthcare professional.
Pregnant women, as well as people with HIV or diabetes are also advised to take the vaccine.
Alternatives to the vaccine:
Other ways of reducing the chances of getting hepatitis B include:
• Avoiding unprotected sex
• Avoiding needle-sharing with other drug users
• Avoiding sharing household items, such as razor blades and toothbrushes, with infected people
• Using sterile sharps when having a tattoo, or body piercing.
If you feel you have been exposed to the virus by doing any of the risky acts, you may be offered a different type of injection called hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG). This treatment stops the virus spreading to uninfected cells in the body, and works best if you have the injection within 24 hours of coming into contact with the virus.