Approximately one third of the world’s population has been infected with hepatitis B, and it is most common in China, Africa and Asia. It is a DNA virus primarily transmitted through bodily fluids and can be diagnosed by taking a blood or serum sample.
The hepatitis B virus affects the liver by triggering the release of infection-fighting antibodies which cause swelling and inflammation. Over the course of time, gradual liver damage may lead to failure of the organ and the need for a transplant. The chance of liver failure mostly depends on whether an individual has acute (self-limiting) or chronic (long-standing) hepatitis B.
The symptoms of the disease will begin to appear within the first six months of infection. These include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, muscle and joint pain and jaundice. For some reason, itchy skin has also been correlated with hepatitis B.
Most children complete a hepatitis B vaccine series by 18 months of age, and receiving a dose of the vaccine or a hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) shot within 24 hours of exposure may help to prevent infection. Further prevention of the disease includes practicing safe sex and avoiding used needles and syringes.
Hepatitis B can be spread from mother to baby but cannot be spread through casual contact such as kissing, sharing cups, or breastfeeding. Those infected with acute hepatitis B will spontaneously be rid of the disease within the first six months, usually two to three weeks after the first symptoms appear. Those infected with a chronic case may not experience ongoing symptoms but always have the ability to transmit the disease to others.
Chronic hepatitis B sufferers account for only five to 10 percent of total cases. These individuals may require the use of antiviral medications to minimize long-term damage, especially to the liver. They are also more at risk for developing a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatitis B is only fatal in about 1 percent of total cases, and in the US this translates to about 5,000 deaths a year. Except in infant cases, the disease is totally preventable through many of the same lifestyle choices as those recommended for HIV prevention.