Hepatitis B: What it Is, How it’s Spread, Who’s at Risk and How You Can Treat It

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) can cause symptoms ranging from nausea, to jaundice, to death. More than one million Americans have chronic Hepatitis B, and a third of those were infected as infants. About a quarter of those people who got the virus as children later die from liver failure or cirrhosis. But a simple series of vaccinations could save your life if you are in a high risk group for HBV.

How Is It Spread?

Hepatitis B virus is transmitted through blood or body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions and saliva. This means that sexual contact is one way you can get HBV, whether homosexual or heterosexual. HBV can also be spread person-to-person in less intimate ways, such as when infected people live together in the same household for a long period of time.

Who’s At Risk?

Groups at highest risk for Hepatitis B include drug users, people with multiple sex partners, and gay men. Healthcare workers and dialysis patients are also at high risk. But about a third of infected patients don’t have an obvious risk factor. Infection among teens and adults is up to four times higher in African-Americans than in caucasians. Diagnostic tests are available for Hepatitis B. They involve taking a blood sample and testing it for signs of infection.

How Is It Treated?

There is no specific treatment available for Hepatitis B. However in some adults with chronic HBV, interferon alfa has caused remission in up to 40 percent of patients.

The best way to prevent Hepatitis B infection is immunization. Healthcare experts recommend HBV immunization for all infants as part of their routine shots. Healthcare workers and people in high-risk groups (drug users, sexually active adults, family members of people with HBV, etc.) should also be vaccinated. The vaccine is actually a series of three shots given over a six month period. Transmission of HBV from mother to unborn child can also be prevented by immunizing the infant shortly after birth.

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