Hepatitis B (serum hepatitis) is a viral infection of the liver that can only be caught by intimate contact with the blood or semen of a person who has the disease or is a carrier of the disease. Examples include receiving blood from a carrier, using a contaminated needle, rubbing a graze or cut on an infected person’s graze or cut, being bitten by an infected person, or most commonly by having sex (homosexual or heterosexual) with them. Ninety percent (90%) of babies born to mothers who are carriers catch the disease. The highest incidences are amongst homosexual men, drug addicts who share needles, Australian Aborigines, and the disease is widespread in Southeast Asia.
Splashes of blood into an eye or onto a cut or graze can spread the disease, and doctors, dentists, nurses and other health workers are therefore at risk.
Blood banks screen all donations for hepatitis B.
There is a long incubation period of six weeks to six months, and the infection cannot be detected during this period. Once active it causes the patient to be very ill with a liver infection, fever, jaundice (yellow skin), nausea and loss of appetite. Some patients develop only a very mild form of the disease but they are still contagious and may suffer the long-term effects.
Blood tests are available to detect antibodies against the various hepatitis viruses and diagnose the type of hepatitis and monitor its progress.
It has been possible to vaccinate against hepatitis B since 1986. Three injections at intervals of one month and six months give at least five years protection. It should not be used during pregnancy unless essential, but accidental vaccination during pregnancy is unlikely to cause any significant problem. It may be used in children from birth onwards. Local soreness, swelling, redness and tissue hardness are the most common side effects. Unusually headache, dizziness, fever, muscle aches, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, joint pain and a rash may occur.