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There are more than 250 million people infected with hepatitis B virus worldwide. This disease often shows no symptoms for a long time, but can lead to cirrhosis, cancer and death. And we can prevent it.

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by hepatovirus B. This type of disease is spread by blood and other bodily fluids such as semen, saliva, vaginal, and menstrual fluids. The virus can stay outside of the body for seven days and still cause and infection. It can cause both acute and chronic hepatitis. While an acute infection may pass without showing any symptoms, a chronic infection can cause more severe problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, and death.

Older patients usually develop the acute form of the disease, while younger ones develop the chronic form. The younger the patient, the greater the risk that they will develop the chronic form. If an adult gets infected, in 95 percent of cases, the virus will clear from the organism by itself, without any form of therapy. On the other hand, up to 50 percent of children aged one to five will develop a chronic, lifelong infection. 

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 257 million people are currently infected with hepatitis B worldwide, many of whom do not know that they have hepatitis B. This is because the symptoms are often little to none. The liver has an impressive regenerative capacity and can function for a long time, despite the damage it takes. When the deterioration progresses, more severe symptoms occur, but at that time, most of the liver already isn't functioning. This is why hepatitis B is often called a "silent killer". 

Symptoms of hepatitis B

The symptoms vary. In the beginning, the patient shows general symptoms, such as fever, fatigue and loss of appetite. But, as the illness progresses, more severe symptoms occur, such as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice
  • Hives
  • Weight loss
  • Ascites (accumulation of liquid in the abdomen)
  • Problems with blood clotting 
  • Getting bruises easily

The liver has many functions. It produces proteins, helps us digest food, clears out the toxins from our organism, produces factors needed for blood coagulation, and more. All of the symptoms listed above are directly related to the loss of liver function.

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

There are many ways to spread this virus. Not only can direct contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids cause the infection, since the virus remains active outside of the body for seven days, even old, dried blood stains are a potential health risk. It can also be transmitted sexually. Besides that, one of the most important ways of transmission is from an infected mother to child, during childbirth. Other ways of transmission include used needles and syringes, getting a tattoo or a piercing in an unsanitary or an unsafe environment or sharing razors, toothbrushes or other personal equipment. And we can prevent it.

Hepatitis B: The vaccine

The vaccine for hepatitis B has been around since 1982. The vaccine doesn't contain any type of virus, neither alive nor dead, but rather a specific protein found on the surface of the virus which our immune cells use to recognize and destroy the virus.

The protein in the vaccine is used to train our white blood cells to recognize the virus by exposing them to the specific protein and teaching the cells how it looks like. So, the next time they get into contact with that type of protein, they'll "know" what it is, and how to act. The side-effects of the vaccine are negligible, and the success rate of the vaccine is very high, with more than 95 percent of people who got the shot forming immunity against the disease for at least 25 years. 

Why is it important to be vaccinated against hepatitis B?

Because hepatitis B can be, and if left untreated-is, very deadly. Although at first the symptoms are mild and rarely show, in time, serious liver damage develops. It leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Not only that, but people infected with hepatitis B are also susceptible to hepatitis D infection. Hepatitis D cannot infect the organism by itself, and rather needs an ongoing hepatitis B infection to enter the liver cells. Once it does, the combination of the two diseases is extremely dangerous and the damage caused to the liver tissue progresses quickly towards hepatocellular carcinoma.

The other reason why vaccination is important is because the virus is spread easily in various ways. Since one of the common ways of spreading infection is during childbirth, it is highly recommended that a newborn gets a vaccine within the first 24 hours. A vaccine is also available for adults, and people in risk groups should get vaccinated. The risk groups include:

  • People who have multiple sex partners
  • People who are professionally exposed to infected blood
  • IV drug users
  • Prison inmates
  • People with hepatitis C
  • People with HIV
  • People who travel to regions where hepatitis B is more common
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People living with people who have hepatitis B
The hepatitis B vaccine has been available for a long time. Considering the severity of this disease on the one hand, and little to no side effects on the other, the responsible thing to do is to get protected. 

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth
  • https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-b https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/index.htm https://vaccine-safety-training.org/about-hepatitisb-vaccines.html

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