Hepatitis B is a viral disease that attacks the liver. There are several types of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D, and E. Hepatitis B virus is very infectious and spreads from person to person through bodily fluids, including blood, semen and vaginal fluids.
People who are infected with hepatitis B can develop an acute illness, in which they become sick soon after infection and either recover fully, or go on to carry the virus in their blood. Other people do not become sick when they catch the infection but continue to carry the virus in their liver for many years. Over a long period of time this can cause serious complications with liver failure or liver cancer. Hepatitis B cannot be cured, but can be prevented with a vaccine.
Hepatitis B can be spread through contact with blood and/or other body fluids of an infected person via; broken skin, open cuts or wounds, sexual contact, sharing drug needles, blood transfusion, and passed from infected mother to baby. Newborn babies of infected mothers can be infected via the birth canal.
People at high-risk of contracting hepatitis B include:
Symptoms of acute hepatitis B include nausea and vomiting, jaundice (yellow skin or eyes), dark urine, pale faeces, feeling unwell, lack of energy, loss of appetite, stomach pain, fever and general joint and muscles pains. Symptoms appear 6 weeks to 6 months after infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), often after 2–3 months.
Chronic hepatitis B may be harder to detect as some infected people do not show signs or symptoms.
Chronic infection can be treated with drugs like interferon and anti-viral medication. Patients with liver disease may be recommended for liver transplant. Liver cancer is almost always fatal.
The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand provides a free Hepatitis B Follow-up Programme with information, support and regular blood tests that are vital in managing a person with hepatitis B infection. We recommend visiting their website (www.hepatitisfoundation.org.nz) or phone free 0800 332 010.
Hepatitis B can be a life-long illness causing liver disease and liver cancer, particularly when infected as a young child or infant. Blood remains infective in those with a chronic hepatitis B infection and can infect others.
Adults are more likely to have severe acute illness than children in whom infection usually goes undetected.
Some people, especially children, become carriers of the virus (referred to as being ‘hepatitis B positive’):
There are effective vaccines available to prevent hepatitis B. The vaccine is provided free to all under 18 years and some contacts of an infectious person.
Contacts and family members of infected persons should practice strict hygiene measures, including covering open cuts and sores, not sharing toothbrushes, razors, towels or other objects that have come in contact with body fluids and blood, and clean up blood spillage on hard surfaces with household bleach.