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Vaccines and Immunizations

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a serious, potentially fatal liver disease, but there is a vaccine that can prevent it in most people. The Hepatitis B vaccine is now given to most babies at birth, but many adults have not had it.

What causes Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). The virus can live outside of the body for 7 days at most, so most people get it directly from touching blood and fluids from people who have the virus. Common ways for the virus to spread include:

• Accidental needle sticks
• Direct contact with blood or open sores of an infected person
• Having sex with an infected person
• Sharing drug equipment (needles, syringes, etc.)
• Sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person

Newborn babies are at risk of getting Hepatitis B if their mothers have the virus. Hepatitis B is not spread through food, water, breastfeeding, hugging, coughing or sneezing.

Some people are at a higher risk of getting Hepatitis B because of their job, a health condition or because of where they live. People who have a higher risk should get the vaccine if they have not done so already. Examples of people who have a higher risk of getting Hepatitis B are:

• Health care workers
• Infants born to infected mothers
• Recreational injection (IV) drug users
• Men who have sex with men
• People on dialysis (kidney treatment)
• Public safety workers
• Sex partners of people who have the virus
• Travelers to countries with high rates of Hepatitis B virus infection

 

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?

The signs and symptoms of Hepatitis B vary based on age and health status. Children under 5 years old and people who have weak immune systems may not show any symptoms at all. The older a person is, the more likely they are to experience severe symptoms. Healthy individuals over the age of 5 may have symptoms that include:


• Abdominal (stomach) pain
• Clay-colored stool
• Dark-colored urine
• Fatigue
• Fever
• Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the white part of the eyes)
• Joint pain
• Lost appetite
• Nausea
• Vomiting

Hepatitis B can be a lasting problem for about 10% of adults who get the virus. Over 90% of adults who get the Hepatitis B virus are able to get better after one year without help. The odds of getting better go up even more for people who get the vaccine. Only 10% of unvaccinated children who get the virus will get better. It is more important for children to get the vaccine for this reason.

 

How to treat Hepatitis B?

There is no specific cure for Hepatitis B. Certain medicines can slow the virus down and lower the chances of getting liver cancer, but they cannot cure the disease. These are also very expensive medications. The vaccine was made to prevent Hepatitis B infection from happening in the first place. It is very affordable.

The Hepatitis B vaccine is one of the first that babies receive (usually within 24 hours of being born). It works best when 2 or 3 shots are given over several months. The exact number of shots a person needs will depend on the form of the vaccine being used. Getting all 3 shots (or 2 in some cases) protects more than 95% of people from Hepatitis B. Studies show that the protection lasts for at least 20 years and that it lasts for an entire lifetime in most people. All children 18 years old and younger should get the vaccine.

People older than 18 should still get the vaccine if they are at high risk of coming into contact with the virus. Such people include:

• Anyone on dialysis
• Anyone traveling to a place where the virus is common
• Anyone who needs blood or blood products (blood transfusions)
• Health care workers (doctors, nurses, etc.)
• Recreational injection drug users
• Men who have sex with men
• People in prison

Resources

  1. HBV FAQs for Health Professionals | Division of Viral Hepatitis | CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/hbvfaq.htm#vaccFAQ. (Accessed: 18th June 2016)

  2. WHO | Hepatitis A. WHO Available at: https://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs328/en/. (Accessed: 18th June 2016)

  3. Hepatitis B Information | Division of Viral Hepatitis | CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/. (Accessed: 18th June 2016)

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