Who is most likely to get hepatitis B?
People who have an increased risk of acquiring hepatitis B include:
- travellers to regions of the world where hepatitis B is common—these include countries in Africa and Asia
- people who regularly come in contact with blood and body fluids, such as hospital workers
- drug users (both intravenous drugs and drugs that are “snorted”)
- people who have unprotected sexual intercourse and those with multiple sex partners
- patients on dialysis
- convicts and prisoners
- infants born to mothers infected with hepatitis B.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Almost a third of patients who have serious infections won’t have symptoms, and children are less likely to show symptoms than adults. When symptoms are present, they may include fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, decreased appetite, and jaundice (yellow colouration of the skin and eyes).
About 90% of infants born to hepatitis B positive mothers will contract hepatitis B. And almost a quarter of patients with chronic hepatitis B infection will die from liver disease.
Blood tests are the best way to detect hepatitis B, especially early after exposure before symptoms begin.
How is hepatitis B treated?
While there are some antiviral drugs that can be used to treat chronic hepatitis B, treatment often requires a combination of more than one drug, and these drugs can have serious side effects.
How can hepatitis B be prevented?
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by being vaccinated. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for:
- children up to 15 years of age
- any traveller who will be visiting an area with widespread hepatitis B
- travellers who are likely to come in contact with the blood of the residents of a high-risk area (such as medical personnel or aid workers)
Practicing safe sex with the use of a condom, avoiding used needles and syringes, and ensuring that any tattoo or body piercing is done with sterile equipment are all important safeguards.
Pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B, and if they are infected, their infants should receive both the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis immune globulin (HBIG) within twelve hours of birth.
How is the hepatitis B vaccine given?
The hepatitis B vaccine is routinely given in a series of three or four doses, usually given in infancy. People not immunized as infants or children may still receive the vaccine.
Although the hepatitis B vaccine is very effective, some people should be tested to ensure they have full immunity after receiving the vaccine including:
- people with a weakened immune system, such as those with HIV or on hemodialysis
- healthcare workers
- infants born to hepatitis B positive mothers
- any sexual partners of persons with chronic hepatitis B
The vaccine, while generally considered safe, is not right for everyone.
Life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) are estimated to occur with one out of every million hepatitis B vaccinations.
People who receive the vaccine are generally asked to wait for about 15 minutes after getting the shot before leaving, so that a health professional can watch for signs of an allergic reaction.
Anyone with a history of an allergic reaction to hepatitis B vaccine or baker’s yeast (a common component of the vaccine) should not receive this vaccine.
Also, anyone who is moderately ill (more than a cold) or has a fever should wait to be vaccinated.
If I notice something unusual after being vaccinated, should I see a doctor?
Anyone developing signs of a severe allergic reaction should seek immediate medical help. These symptoms include: difficulty breathing, hives, swelling of the face and tongue, and loss of consciousness.
Also, anyone with a high fever or excessive symptoms (changes in behaviour, severe pain and swelling at the injection site, etc.) after receiving the hepatitis B vaccine should contact a doctor.