What is hepatitis B? How can it affect your child? Read on

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When I don't have hepatitis B, why should I give my baby the hepatitis B vaccine? Our experts answers some myth-busting questions on this deadly infection

hepatitis b

Hepatitis B can be transmitted from infected mother to the baby

India currently has over 40 million hepatitis B infected patients and around 15 million hepatitis C infected patients. Experts suggest that it is primarily transmitted from mother to child, and both viruses pose a serious threat and in many cases lead to liver cancer.

Dr Abhideep Chaudhary, liver transplant surgeon, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi, answers some important questions about the risks and preventive measures of this deadly infection.

What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis is a virus that affects the liver. Hepatitis B can cause liver cell damage, which can lead to cirrhosis and cancer.

How common is it in India?
In India, approximately 7,80,000 persons die each year from hepatitis B infection. Close to about 6,50, 000 die from cirrhosis and liver cancer caused due to chronic hepatitis B infection and another 1,30, 000 from acute hepatitis B.

How does hepatitis B spread?
It is spread by contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person; the same way as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, HBV is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.

The main ways of getting infected with HBV are:

  • from mother to baby at the birth (perinatal)
  • from child-to-child
  • unsafe injections and transfusions
  • unprotected sexual contact

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Following are the various symptoms of hepatitis B. If one experiences any of them, they must immediately consult the doctor.

  • Tiredness
  • Muscle soreness
  • Upset stomach
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Dark-yellow urine
  • Light-coloured stools
  • Yellowish eyes and skin (symptoms of jaundice)

Can a person spread hepatitis B and not know it?
Anyone can become infected with hepatitis B virus at anytime during their lives. Hepatitis B virus is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood or certain body fluids. For example, babies can get hepatitis B virus from their infected mothers at birth, and children can get it if they live with or are cared for by an infected person, or even if they share personal care items (e.g., toothbrush) with an infected person.

How serious is this infection?
Hepatitis B can be very serious. It can cause chronic infection that could lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Many people in America die every year from hepatitis B-related liver disease. Fortunately, there is a vaccine to prevent acute (recently acquired) hepatitis B.

Can you get hepatitis more than once?
Yes, you can get hepatitis more than once, when it is transmitted through direct contact with blood, semen, or vaginal secretions. It can also be transmitted by injecting drug users who share needles or other injecting equipment contaminated with HBV-infected blood.

Who is at increased risk of hepatitis B infection?
The hepatitis B virus can infect infants, children, teens and adults. Although everyone can be at some risk for a hepatitis B infection, the following people are at greater risk because of their ethnic background, occupation, or lifestyle choices:

  • Those who have unprotected sex with multiple sex partners or with someone who’s infected with HBV
  • Those who share needles during intravenous (IV) drug use
  • Homosexuals who may be sexually active
  • Those living with someone who has a chronic HBV infection
  • Infants born to an infected mother

Continue reading to know the various testing methods and the treatment for hepatitis B 

what is hepatitis b

Hepatitis B vaccine has been shown to be very safe when given to people of all ages (Image courtesy: Flickr)

How can one know that they have hepatitis B?

It is not possible, on clinical grounds, to differentiate hepatitis B from hepatitis caused by other viral agents and, hence, laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis is essential. A number of blood tests are available to diagnose and monitor people with hepatitis B. They can be used to distinguish acute and chronic infections.

Laboratory diagnosis of hepatitis B infection focuses on the detection of the hepatitis B surface antigen – HBsAg. WHO recommends that all blood donations are tested for hepatitis B to ensure blood safety and avoid accidental transmission to people who receive blood products.

Who should get tested for it?
For hepatitis B, the following people should get tested immediately:

  • All pregnant women
  • People born in regions of the world with medium to high rates of hepatitis B
  • Infants born to HBV-infected mothers
  • Household, needle-sharing, or sex contacts of HBV-infected people
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Injection drug users
  • Patients with elevated liver enzymes of an unknown cause

Why should people get tested if they don’t feel sick?
It is very important to get your self checked, so that in case there is any symptom of viral hepatitis then it can be cured at an early stage.

How does getting tested help protect family members?
The disease can be transmitted from one person to another. That’s why it helps to protect the family members as well.

How is hepatitis B treated?
In most cases, hepatitis B goes away on its own. You can relieve your symptoms at home by resting, eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

Treatment for chronic hepatitis B depends on whether your infection is getting worse and whether you have liver damage. Sometimes, chronic hepatitis B can lead to severe liver damage. If this happens, you may need a liver transplant.

Is hepatitis B vaccine safe?
Yes, it is. Hepatitis B vaccine has been shown to be safe when given to people of all ages. More than one billion hepatitis B shots have been given worldwide. In America, more than 120 million people, including infants, children, and adults have received hepatitis B vaccine.

The most common side effects from hepatitis B vaccine are soreness at the injection site or slight fever. Serious side effects are rare. Some parents worry that their baby’s immune system is immature and cannot handle vaccination at such a young age. Actually, as soon as they are born, babies start effectively dealing with trillions of bacteria and viruses.

Why is this vaccine recommended for all babies when most of them won’t be exposed to hepatitis B virus for many years?
Hepatitis B virus can enter the bloodstream, attack the liver, and cause serious damage. When babies get infected, the virus usually remains in the body for a lifetime (this is called chronic hepatitis B). About one out of four infected babies will die of liver failure or liver cancer as adults. Hepatitis B is a deadly disease, but it’s preventable with vaccination.

Should I be tested before I get the vaccine to see if I’m already infected or immune?
Blood testing is not recommended before the routine vaccination of infants, children, and adolescents. However, children born in countries where hepatitis B is moderate or highly endemic should be tested to be sure they are not already infected.

Testing can be done at the same visit when the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine is given. Vaccinating a person already immune to or infected with this virus will not help or harm the person. The main reason for testing people at increased risk for hepatitis B is to determine if they are infected in order to refer them for medical care.

Our expert, Dr Abhideep Chaudhary is a renowned transplant surgeon, and working since 2005 in the field of transplantation and towards bringing expert medical advice and the latest in medical advances for treating liver diseases. He is currently a liver transplant surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi.

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