Hepatitis B is a major global health problem. It is estimated that 350 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis B infection worldwide.
What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). The virus can cause an acute illness that clears up quickly without causing any long-term damage. However, in about 20 per cent of cases, it causes a chronic illness that can last for life with symptoms that come and go. Between 15 percent and 40 per cent of people with chronic hepatitis B develop liver cancer or liver failure which can be fatal.
How is the virus transmitted?
People become infected after coming into contact with contaminated body fluids – saliva, mothers’ milk and blood. Many people are infected at birth or during childhood. Drugs users can become infected if they share needles and hospital patients can become infected if they are transfused with contaminated blood. The virus is very infectious, so only a tiny amount of blood is needed to transmit the disease.
What are the symptoms?
In about one third of cases, there are no symptoms. In another third of cases, the infection causes mild symptoms similar to the flu, with weakness, aches, fever, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, jaundice, nausea and vomiting. In the final third of cases, acute cases, these symptoms can last several months.
In about a fifth of cases, the infection then goes into a chronic phase. Some people may seem healthy but they are carrying and transmitting the virus. Others may develop a chronic active hepatitis, with similar symptoms to the acute phase of the infection.
Symptoms take between six weeks and six months to develop.
Tell me about treatment and recovery
Most people with hepatitis B do not need treatment other than rest and they eventually make a full recovery. It is important to monitor the infection to ascertain whether the chronic disease develops.
If the infection lasts more than six months, your doctor should advise on options, such as medicines, to cut the risk of permanent liver damage.
How can I prevent infection?
Do not share needles. When visiting a barber’s shop, make sure the tools are sterilized. You cannot get infected by touching another person and the virus is killed by washing plates and utensils in hot water. There is an effective vaccination against hepatitis B. You should take your child to a clinic for the vaccination or make your child available when healthcare workers make door-to-to visits.