Hepatitis B (HBV) is a virus that is spread through contact with blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. The infection leads to inflammation of the liver.
Acute hepatitis B occurs when a person is infected with the hepatitis B virus for less than six months. Chronic hepatitis B is a long-term infection which lasts more than six months and needs regular follow-up.
The virus causes inflammation of the liver, which affects the way the liver works. The liver is a very important organ which does many tasks essential for life and growth. Hepatitis B causes scarring of the liver and over many years can result in cirrhosis, which stops the liver working properly. Liver damage can also lead to liver cancer or liver failure.
Hepatitis B is the most common serious liver infection in the world. It is the leading cause of liver cancer. About 100,000 people in New Zealand have the virus. Every year 250 New Zealanders and over one million people worldwide die from hepatitis B related liver disease.
It is common in certain parts of the world. People from Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe or the northern or eastern parts of New Zealand’s North Island should get tested.
Hepatitis B is spread through contact with blood or sexual fluids. It is highly infectious and can survive outside the body for more than seven days including on playground or unsterile tattooing or medical equipment.
About 99 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B were infected as babies (from their mother during birth) or young children (through contact with other children or a household member with the virus).
When young children and babies get infected, they develop chronic infection with the associated life-long risks of cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer. When adults are infected, they often become sick with acute hepatitis (jaundice, abdominal pain and vomiting) but usually get rid of the infection.
There are two tests used to diagnose hepatitis B:
Many people with chronic hepatitis B have no symptoms. It is often referred to as the ‘silent epidemic’ because it’s common for people not to notice any symptoms until 20 or 30 years after infection. However, symptoms that do appear are usually mild and non-specific. The most common symptoms include:
You do not have to tell anyone you have hepatitis, however, you should take reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of the virus to others.
You may choose to share your diagnosis with particular people for support. It is often best to tell people you trust or people directly affected, such as household members or sexual partners.
Telling healthcare workers such as a doctor or nurse may be beneficial for good health care (e.g. prescribing the most appropriate medications). Health care workers, including dentists, are required to use standard infection control precautions for all situations and procedures that may involve exposure to blood or other bodily fluids, regardless of whether you have hepatitis or not.
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People living with hepatitis do not have to tell employers, unless you work in an environment that may put others at risk, such as healthcare. However, disclosure is not mandatory. Discrimination against people with hepatitis in the workplace is illegal. Read more about telling others here.
Hepatitis B is mainly spread by transfer of blood and other bodily fluids from one person to another. It is not spread through:
To avoid infecting others you should:
Yes, there is a safe and effective vaccine to protect against hepatitis B. The vaccination is made up of three injections over 3-6 months. Since 1987 a vaccination has been available to all babies born in New Zealand. The vaccination is free to all those under 18 years of age through general practitioners.
It is also offered free to household contacts and sexual partners of people infected with hepatitis B. The vaccination is recommended (although not publicly funded) for many other at-risk groups such as health care workers.
Treatment for hepatitis B is only needed in people with high levels of virus and liver enzymes in the blood. The medicines control chronic hepatitis B by stopping the virus from multiplying. The treatment is a single tablet once a day. Once you begin treatment you may need to continue it for many years.
You should have regular blood tests every six months to check whether the hepatitis B has become active and whether you need treatment. Blood tests can also detect liver disease. Treatment helps prevent further damage and also reverses damage from liver scarring. To help you look after yourself you can enrol in the our national hepatitis B follow-up programme. We will organise your blood tests to help with the health of your liver. You may not experience symptoms from the virus but that does not mean no liver damage is occurring. Regular blood tests may detect damage to your liver early and allow for treatment before you feel sick.