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Hepatitis B Virus

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Now let’s take a closer look at Hepatitis B. The Hepatitis B Virus reproduces in the liver causing inflammation and possibly cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. When first infected, a person can develop an “acute” infection, which can range in severity from a very mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. Acute Hepatitis B refers to the first six months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis B virus. Now, some people are able to fight the infection and clear the virus. 90% or more of adults and older children who contract Hepatitis B are likely to clear the virus from their systems within a few months and develop immunity. About 10% become chronic. The virus stays in their blood infecting liver cells, damaging them over time, and causing illness such as cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Now infants and young children are most at risk from chronic infections, complications, and death. Further, in most children, the virus is a silent killer. It destroys the liver or induces liver cancer, liver failure or cirrhosis often over a period of 20 years or more. It’s estimated that up to 1.2 million people in the US have chronic HBV infection. About 38,000 people per year become infected with HBV. Each year, about 3,000 people die as a result of liver disease caused by Hepatitis B Virus infection. Infections have significantly decreased since 1990 because of routine Hepatitis B vaccination. Symptoms can be unreliable and may or may not be present. Only proper testing can determine the infection. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to, yellow skin (known as jaundice), yellowing of the eyes, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, dark colored urine, joint pain, clay colored stools, abdominal discomfort, and fever. Hepatitis B Virus is up to 100 times easier to catch than HIV. This is because of several reasons but for a couple, the virus is small compared to HIV. And also, HBV can live so long outside the body, at least 7 days, depending on the right conditions. It’s mainly spread by sexual contact with an infected person, or by sharing needles or syringes. It can also be spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth, or from contact with blood and body fluids through breaks in their skin such as bites, cuts, or sores. People who are chronically infected can spread Hepatitis B virus to others, even if they don’t look or feel sick. However, like HIV it’s not spread by casual contact like handshakes, hugging, doorknobs, or using the same equipment, or using public things like toilets or water fountains, which is a real blessing for us. Unlike HIV or Hepatitis C, there is a vaccine for Hepatitis B. It’s usually given in three doses given over a period of six months. Hepatitis B vaccine is made from non-infectious material and cannot cause HBV infection. It’s a safe vaccine where severe problems or allergic reactions are rare. Hepatitis B vaccine is 80 to 95% effective in providing protection against Hepatitis B when the complete series of three doses of vaccine are administered. Now it’s wise to have your immunity confirmed through antibody testing one to two months after your series. Booster doses of Hepatitis B vaccine are not recommended at this time. The HBV vaccine must be offered free to employees who face occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens. Employees who do not want the vaccine must complete a vaccine declination form. Occupationally exposed employees include those who: give tattoos, piercings, or other body art, administer first aid, provide medical aid, assist in bathroom care, work in a medical or dental office, perform custodial duties involving the cleaning and decontamination of surfaces that may be contaminated with blood and or other potentially infectious materials, and or handle regulated medical waste. So in general, any people with jobs that expose them to human blood or other body fluids must be offered the Hepatitis B vaccine free of charge.

In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the Hepatitis B virus, also known as HBV, including signs and symptoms, ways to protect yourself, and some statistics for Hepatitis B infection in the U.S.

When a person is first infected with the Hepatitis B virus, it begins as an acute infection (meaning short in duration) and can range from very mild conditions with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization.

The Hepatitis B virus reproduces in the liver, which causes inflammation. This, in turn, can also lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and liver failure.

An acute infection is defined by duration – the first six months after the person is exposed to the virus. Some people's bodies can fight the infection and rid it from their systems. While others become chronically infected (meaning long-term).

Pro Tip #1: What does a chronic infection mean in practical terms? It means the virus remains in the blood, affects and damages liver cells over time, which causes illnesses like cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, liver cancer, and eventually death.

The good news – Around 90 percent of those infected (adults and older children) with the Hepatitis B virus will be able to fight the virus and expel it from their bodies within a few months and subsequently develop an immunity to it. The other 10 percent of people who contract Hepatitis B fall into that chronic category outlined above.

Warning: Hepatitis B is particularly devastating for infants and young children, as the majority will be at a much greater risk of developing a chronic infection. In most kids, Hepatitis B is a silent killer, and left unchecked will slowly destroy the liver over a period of 20 years or more.

How Hepatitis B is Contracted and Spread

Hepatitis B is contracted in the same ways as HIV. It's mainly spread through sexual contact with an infected person, or as a result of sharing needles or syringes with an infected person. And, like HIV, the infection can be passed from mother to unborn (or just-born) baby, especially if the infant came into contact with blood or other bodily fluids through breaks in the skin like cuts or sores.

Pro Tip #2: Do not expect a person with chronic Hepatitis B to look or appear sick. The virus cares little about appearances and will spread regardless.

Hepatitis B Statistics in the U.S.

  • It is estimated that up to 1.2 million people in the U.S. have a chronic Hepatitis B infection
  • 38,000 people each year become infected with the Hepatitis B virus
  • 3000 people each year die from liver disease caused by Hepatitis B
  • The number of infections has significantly decreased since 1990, thanks to routine Hepatitis B vaccinations

Hepatitis B Signs and Symptoms

Much like with HIV and AIDS, signs and symptoms for Hepatitis B are unreliable and may or may not be present. And why proper testing for both is the only sure-fire way to know if an infection is present.

Hepatitis B symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Yellow skin, known as jaundice
  • Yellowing eyes
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Dark urine
  • Joint pain
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Fever

Pro Tip #3: The Hepatitis B virus is up to 100 times easier to catch than HIV. There are several reasons for this including the virus' size, as it's much smaller than HIV, and the fact that the Hepatitis B virus can live outside the body for at least seven days, depending on specific conditions.

Also, like HIV, Hepatitis B cannot be spread through casual contact, such as hugging, handshaking, or coming into contact with doorknobs, water fountains, and toilets.

Hepatitis B Vaccine

This is where the Hepatitis B and HIV similarities end, as there is an effective vaccine for Hepatitis B that is administered in three doses over a six-month period.

The vaccine is safe, as it's made from non-infectious materials and cannot cause one to become infected with the Hepatitis B virus. Also, severe problems or allergic reactions are rare.

The Hepatitis B vaccine is around 80 – 95 percent effective in providing protection against the virus, but only in situations where all three doses of the vaccine are administered.

Pro Tip #4: It's probably a good idea to not assume the vaccine worked. It's easy enough to confirm your newly developed immunity to the Hepatitis B virus but wait at least one to two months after completing the vaccine series before getting tested.

*It should be noted, that at this time, booster doses of the Hepatitis B vaccine are not recommended.

Consider Getting the Hepatitis Vaccine if …

There are some people who are more likely to be occupationally exposed to the Hepatitis B virus than others, and that includes:

  • Tattoo artists, or anyone who performs body piercings or body art
  • People who administer first aid routinely
  • Professionals who provide medical care
  • Employees responsible for assisting in bathroom care
  • People who work in medical and/or dental offices
  • People who handle medical waste
  • Employees who perform custodial duties that involve the cleaning of decontaminated surfaces – blood and other possibly infectious materials

Anyone whose job will, or might, expose them to the Hepatitis B virus must be offered the vaccine for free through their employer. Employees who do not want the vaccine will need to complete a vaccine declination form.