Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that results from an infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting for only a few weeks to a serious, lifelong disease. This virus is about 100 times more infectious than HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Worldwide, approximately 350 million people have chronic HBV infection and 500,000-700,000 people die each year due to complications of severe scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and/ or liver cancer. In Canada, the incidence is low, at around 0.8%. A significant number of those infected in this country have emigrated from countries where the prevalence of hepatitis B is moderate or high, including South-East Asia and the Pacific Basin (excluding Japan, Australia, and New Zealand), the central Asian Republics, sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazon Basin, parts of the Middle East, and some countries in Eastern Europe.
Hepatitis B spreads when blood or another body fluid (salivary, seminal, or vaginal) from a person infected with HBV enters the body of someone who is not infected. High risk activities include sexual contact with an infected person, having multiple sexual partners, getting a tattoo or body piercing using unsterilized instruments, or sharing contaminated needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment. An infected mother can also pass hepatitis B to her baby at birth. It is not casually transmitted by coughing, sneezing, hugging, or sharing food.
What can people do to prevent the spread of HBV?
Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination!
The vaccine, in use since 1982, has an outstanding record of safety and effectiveness, with most people developing antibodies after having three separate doses. Ideally, all infants should be vaccinated. In the early 1990s, the provinces and territories implemented publicly-funded universal HBV vaccination programs for either adolescents or infants. HBV vaccine is also offered to all adults who are at increased risk of HBV infection, such as:
- injection drug users
- persons with high-risk sexual behaviour (multiple partners or men who sleep with men)
- travellers to countries where hepatitis B is common
- healthcare professionals and emergency personnel
- patients with chronic liver (hepatitis C, autoimmune hepatitis) or kidney disease
- sexual partners and close family/household members living with an infected person
- persons who frequently require blood or blood products
- recipients of solid organ transplantation
In addition to vaccination, there are other simple ways to stop the spread of hepatitis B:
- avoid direct contact with blood and bodily fluids
- clean blood or bodily fluids with a diluted bleach solution (mix 9 parts water to 1 part bleach)
- wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any potential exposure to blood
- discard HBV-soiled items carefully into bags
- avoid sharing sharp items such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, and earrings or body jewellery
- avoid illegal street drugs (injecting, inhaling, snorting, or popping pills)
- practice safe sex with all partners
- consumers who use ear/body piercing, tattooing, electrolysis, and acupuncture services should choose suppliers who use pre-packaged, pre-sterilized disposable needles, and sterile equipment.
Knowledge is the ultimate tool when it comes to prevention. Knowing your hepatitis B status is the first way you can protect yourself from becoming infected or infecting someone else. If you already know that you have hepatitis B, make sure that your family members and those you live with, especially your partner, are all tested and vaccinated if required. If you are unsure of your vaccination status, or you were born or lived in a country where hepatitis B is more prevalent, then talk to your physician about screening options.