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Even though they attack completely different cells, and are completely unrelated in scientifical classifications, people with HIV are more prone to a viral hepatitis infection than the rest of the population.

Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. Although this inflammation can occur due to a number of reasons, such as toxins, alcohol, or even auto-immune diseases, viral infections are the most common cause. Hepatitis B is a viral hepatitis which can lead to acute liver failure, cirrhosis and liver cancer. HIV infects our white blood cells, lowering our immune response and making us susceptible to infections and cancer. These two viruses have little in common, but statistics show that people who are HIV positive have a higher risk of contracting hepatitis B, and that one in 10 HIV patients, in the US, also has a chronic form of hepatitis B.

What is HIV?

HIV, or human immunodeficiency viruses, are two viruses that attack a specific type of white blood cells. This weakens our immunity and, in time, can cause AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). These cells help our immune system remember the pathogens it encountered earlier, making the response to those infections quicker and more effective. This part of our immune system is called the acquired immune system, and "deleting" it resets your immune system to that of a newborn. People with AIDS have an immune system so weak that even the bacteria which don't usually cause infections can lead to life-threatening illnesses. On the other hand, one of the roles of our immune system is to find and kill potential cancer cells. People with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of getting cancer too.

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus. In a rather complicated way, it uses the proteins of the host cell to enter the nucleus an replicate.

The newly produced viruses exit the cell and infect other cells, causing liver damage. It also has a mechanism of shutting down programed cell suicide (apoptosis). When cells start acting funny (not doing what they're supposed to, or reproducing uncontrollably) a molecular mechanism exists that makes sure that the rogue cell dies and doesn't spread. If it does continue to grow, a certain type of white blood cells that patrol the organism, searching for the damaged cells, will kill it.

The hepatitis virus B has a mechanism to both override the apoptosis, and to hide from the white blood cells that eliminate potential cancer cells. And that is, in short, how hepatitis B leads to cancer.

How are hepatitis B and HIV connected?

These two types of viruses are almost completely different. The type of the cells that they attack, the damage they do to the organism, the way they infect the cell, even the types of nucleic acids inside these to viruses are different (HIV is an RNA virus, while HBV is a DNA virus). What they do have in common is transmission.

Both of these diseases are spread via blood and other bodily fluids, such as semen and vaginal fluids. Risky behavior and certain medical conditions put you at greater risk of contracting one — or both — of these diseases. The risk groups include:

  • IV drug users
  • People who frequently change sexual partners
  • People who don't practice safe sex
  • Medical professionals who often come in contact with infected blood
  • Receiving a blood transfusion, or a tissue transplant that is unsafe

A mother who is infected can transmit both of these diseases to her child during childbirth. The other ways of getting infected include getting tattoos and piercings in an unsafe environment, and needle stick accidents in health care.

Chronic hepatitis leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer, and, in case of a coinfection, the liver disease progresses faster towards these conditions. However, the hepatitis virus does not affect the pace of the HIV infection.

What can we do to prevent these diseases?

Both diseases are preventable. In the case of hepatitis B, a vaccine is available, and it is highly recommended that a newborn receives the first dose of the vaccine during the first 24 hours after birth (there are three doses in total). Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against HIV.

Since both of the diseases share the ways in which they're spread, including drug use and unsafe sexual encounters, avoiding risky behavior is a way of preventing both of the diseases. Practicing safe sex and not sharing needles and syringes is of key importance. 

If a person is diagnosed with HIV, there are a number of antiviral drugs available to treat this condition. But, since HIV patients are more susceptible to infections than the rest of the population, they should get vaccinated to prevent a possible hepatitis infection. 

In conclusion

Although they are very different in the ways that they affect our organism, HIV and hepatitis share the same routes of infection. The best way to stay safe is to avoid the behavior that puts you at risk of getting infected. Practice safe sex, don't share or reuse needles and syringes if you're an IV drug user and be sure to get your hepatitis B vaccine. Although they are treatable, both diseases cause chronic, lifelong conditions that can end in death.

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