Hepatitis B infection, also known as serum hepatitis, is an infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis B virus(HBV), a dangerous, but preventable infection. In North America, Hepatitis B occurs mostly in adolescents and young adults, although anyone can become infected.
The infection is usually silent, without any apparent symptoms for many years. One of the most serious complications of HBV is liver cancer or irreparable liver damage or failure. In general, the earlier in life one is infected, the higher the chances that these complications develop. Not all people with the infection will be sick or have any symptoms; they are referred to as Hepatitis B carriers. Although not apparently ill, carriers may unknowingly transmit the virus to other people. The only way to know if you are a carrier is by a blood test.
How is Hepatitis B spread?
Hepatitis B can be transmitted from coming into contact with an infected person's blood or body fluids. Modes of transmission of HBV include being passed from the mother to her baby at birth and living in the same household with someone who is infected, including a carrier. The virus can also be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact, or through contact with infected blood such as blood from drug users or others who share dirty tattoo needles or ear/body-piercing needles, and by sharing toothbrushes or razors.
There is no cure for HBV infection, so prevention is extremely important. Thanks to the Hepatitis B vaccine, over 95 percent of vaccinated children are protected from the infection. The HBV vaccination is currently part of the regular immunization schedule in North America. The vaccination consists of two or three doses. All doses should be given for maximal protection. In order to protect children and adolescents who have not previously received the vaccination, Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended at age ten to twelve. Older adolescents or others living with an infected household member should also receive the vaccination series. In high risk areas or situations, the vaccination is given during the newborn period. Your healthcare provider or local public health agency will give you the specific details and counsel you on what is best for your baby in your region.
Aside from vaccination, another important aspect of prevention focuses on avoiding contact with infected blood. By knowing and avoiding potentially high-risk behaviours. Using condoms during sexual intercourse, and not sharing needles, razors, and toothbrushes can all help prevent the spread of the virus. Pregnant women should be tested for HBV because, if they are infected, immediate action can be taken at birth to protect their newborn baby. Finally, be aware that you are at a higher risk when travelling to China and some parts of Asia and Africa where the incidence of Hepatitis B is higher than in North America.