Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver tissue. It is caused by one of five hepatitis viruses — you guessed it, the hepatitis B virus. This disease is a worldwide problem, with some regions, such as the Western Pacific Region and the African Region, being more heavily affected. Hepatitis B can cause both an acute and a chronic form of the disease, depending on the age at which a person gets infected. The younger the person is, the greater their risk of contracting the chronic form of hepatitis B.
How is hepatitis B spread?
The main way hepatitis B is spread is via blood and other bodily fluids, such as semen, saliva, vaginal fluids or menstrual fluids. The most common ways of getting an infection include:
- Sharing needles and syringes when using IV drugs
- Having unprotected sex
- During childbirth from an infected mother to her child
- Sharing razors, toothbrushes and other equipment
- Medical staff is at risk of getting infected by accidental needle sticks
Hepatitis B is easily transmitted from one IV drug user to another if they share the equipment for injecting drugs. After one person is done, microscopic blood drops containing the virus are left in the needle or in the syringe and, when the next person uses the same equipment to inject drugs, the virus is injected into their blood stream as well.
Having unprotected sex is another common way of getting infected. Having sex, especially drunk sex or rough sex, causes microscopic tears in the mucosa. Since semen and vaginal fluids contain viruses, it is easy for the virus to enter the organism through these lacerations.
Infection during childbirth is common in regions where hepatitis B is more prevalent, such as the Western Pacific Region (where 6.2 percent of the population is infected) and the African Region (where 6.1 of the population is infected). It is also common for the disease to be spread this way if a mother doesn't know that she's infected.
Sharing razors, toothbrushes and other personal equipment is a potential risk since microscopic traces of blood or saliva containing the virus may be spread from one person to another. If a droplet of an infected blood comes to contact with a microscopic cut caused by shaving, an infection can occur.
Medical professionals are at risk of contracting the disease when dealing with the infected blood, by accidental needle stick injuries or during surgeries.
Snorting drugs is also a way one can get infected. The tubes used for snorting, especially bank notes, or the surface used to prepare the drug can contain traces of infected material which can cause an infection by coming in contact with the nose mucosa.
Getting tattoos and piercings (as well as getting other types of body modifications) used to pose a greater risk a few decades ago, since the equipment used for those procedures may also contain virus particles which could be passed from one person to another, but improved sterilization process and better hygiene have lowered the risk of getting an infection this way.
If a person contracts the disease, he or she may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen
- Joint pain
- Light stool
- Dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Prolonged bleeding time
- Getting bruises easily
All of these symptoms are connected to the loss of liver function and the destruction of the liver tissue. As the illness progresses, it can lead to acute liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer and death. The incubation period of the disease is, on average, 75 days.
How can we prevent hepatitis B?
There are three or four doses of the vaccine and the vaccine provides protection for at least 20 years, sometimes even lifelong. Still, if you missed your vaccine when you were an infant, it is still possible to get one as an adult or teenager, and you should do it, especially if you engage in risky behavior or are a medical professional.
Other ways of protection include always using new needles and syringes if you're using drugs, using protection while having sex, especially with strangers, always covering your open cuts with a band aid and being cautious of the place you're getting a tattoo or a piercing.
Hepatitis B is a potentially deadly disease, and even though there are some therapies for the chronic form of the disease, sometimes it is incurable. On the other hand, it is easily preventable using vaccination.