What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) which is present in the blood and body fluids of an infected individual. The incubation period is about 60-90 days. It may cause an acute illness presenting with loss of appetite, tiredness, muscle, joint or abdominal pain, diarrhoea and jaundice (i.e. yellowish skin or eyes). It can also progress into chronic infection, especially in infants and children, and lead to chronic liver diseases, such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, and death. Occasionally people who are infected with HBV will never fully recover from the infection; they become carriers of HBV and can infect others for the rest of their lives.
How does it spread?
HBV can be transmitted by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. It can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse and non-sterile needles, as well as from an infected mother to her baby at birth. The following groups are thus all at a higher risk of getting hepatitis B infection: the intravenous drug users, health care workers, haemodialysis patients, those who go for tattooing, people with sexual contact with infected persons or with multiple sex partners, recipients of transfusion with contaminated blood products, infants born to infected mothers, and those who travel to areas where hepatitis B is common. Hepatitis B is not spread through food or water, or by casual contact.
How can you prevent it?
Avoid multiple sex partners and unsafe sex. Always use condoms if you are not sure whether the sex partner is a carrier. Avoid sharing of razors, toothbrush or needles for injection. Avoid acupuncture, tattooing or ear-piercing done with unsterilized instruments. Keep out of contact with other people' s blood or body fluids (e.g. semen, vaginal discharge, etc.). Hepatitis B vaccine (total 3 doses, given initially and 1-2 and 6-18 months later) provides good protection against HBV.
How is hepatitis B treated?
There is no cure for hepatitis B. However, there are some drugs that may slow down the disease process. Prevention is therefore very important.