Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. It is 100 times more infectious than the AIDS virus. Worldwide, there are 350 million chronic sufferers and a million deaths each year from the disease.

The World Health Organisation has recommended that hepatitis B vaccination be included as part of childhood or other universal vaccination schemes. As yet this has not been implemented in Ireland.

At present in Ireland, immunisation against hepatitis B is recommended in people who because of their occupation or lifestyle, may be at risk from the disease. These include:

  • People working as health care professionals or in the health care sector.
  • Contacts of people with acute infection.
  • Emergency services and security personnel.
  • High risk groups including intravenous drug users, people travelling abroad or who have just come back from high risk areas, patients on haemodialysis for chronic renal failure, and people whose sexual habits may put them at risk.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

One-third of adults who contract hepatitis B will have no symptoms. Symptoms can be quite vague but include:

  • Jaundice.
  • Fatigue.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Intermittent nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Stomach or joint pain.

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Many infected people do not know they are carrying the disease. You get hepatitis B by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. For example, individuals can become infected by having sex or sharing needles with an infected person. It can also be transmitted from mother to infant at birth.

A baby can get hepatitis B from an infected mother during childbirth. Sometimes, people who are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) never recover fully from the infection; they carry the virus and can infect others for the rest of their lives.

Who is at risk from hepatitis B?

Your risk is higher if you:

  • Have sex with someone infected with HBV.
  • Have sex with more than one partner.
  • Are a gay male.
  • Live in the same house with someone who has lifelong HBV infection.
  • Have a job that involves contact with human blood.
  • Take drugs intravenously.
  • Are a patient or work in a home for the developmentally disabled.
  • Have haemophilia.
  • Travel to areas where hepatitis B is common.

How can hepatitis B infection be prevented?

Use of the hepatitis B vaccine and other vaccines is strongly endorsed by the medical, scientific and public health communities as a safe and effective way to prevent disease and death.

Hepatitis B vaccines have been shown to be very safe when given to infants, children and adults. There is no confirmed evidence that indicates that hepatitis B vaccine can cause chronic illnesses. Hepatitis B vaccine prevents hepatitis B disease and its serious consequences.

Case reports of unusual illnesses following vaccines are most often related to other causes and not related to a vaccine. Whenever large number of vaccines are given, some adverse events will occur coincidentally after vaccination and be falsely attributed to the vaccine.

It is important that immunity to hepatitis B is checked following vaccination, as occasionally the vaccinations need to be repeated.

How is hepatitis B treated?

There is no cure for hepatitis B and thus prevention is very important. Hepatitis B vaccine is the best protection against HBV. Three doses are needed for complete protection.

What can I do?

All pregnant women should be tested for HBV early in their pregnancy. If the blood test is positive, the baby should receive a vaccine along with another shot, hepatitis B immune globulin (called H-BIG), at birth. The vaccine series should be completed during the first 6 months of life.

How effective is the hepatitis B vaccine?

A complete course of hepatitis B vaccine can provide protection for up to five years. Hepatitis B vaccine prevents both HBV infection and those diseases related to HBV infection. Adults who are at increased risk of HBV infection and who should receive the vaccine include:

  • Persons at occupational risk of infection.
  • Men who have sex with men.
  • Illicit injection drug users.
  • Haemodialysis patients.
  • Household and sex contacts of persons with chronic HBV infection.
  • Sexually active heterosexuals with more than one sex partner in the previous six months or a history of a sexually transmitted disease.

Where can I get further information?

Travel vaccination information is also available at: www.cdc.gov/travel/

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