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Hepatitis B

What is it?

Hepatitis B is a virus that causes inflammation (swelling) of the liver and may result in liver disease that can continue for the rest of your life (called chronic hepatitis B).

How do you get it?

Hepatitis B can be passed on by having unprotected sex by vagina (front hole), anal (bum) and oral sex; sharing injecting equipment (needles and syringes), toothbrushes or razors; and tattooing and body piercing with un-sterile equipment. Hepatitis B is not passed on through sharing cutlery or food (unlike Hepatitis A). Hepatitis B is common in some remote Aboriginal communities, and in these communities mother-to-child transmission and child-to-child transmission can occur.

What are the signs?

Signs of hepatitis B infection may include:

  • mild flu-like symptoms;
  • nausea and vomiting;
  • abdominal pain;
  • joint and muscle pain, and
  • jaundice [yellowing of the skin and eyes, or dark urine (pee)].

Symptoms can take between one and six months after infection to show up. Some people may have no symptoms at all. Hepatitis B can become a chronic infection (more than six months in duration). Most adults will recover completely from hepatitis B but a large number do not clear the infection. Those that do not clear the virus are at risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Tests for Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is diagnosed with a blood test. Once you have had hepatitis B, antibodies will be detected in your blood. Most people will become immune to hepatitis B once they have had it, meaning that it is unlikely that they will get it again. Some people do not clear the virus and their liver health needs to be regularly monitored with blood tests called liver function tests.

Treatment for Hepatitis B

There is no cure for hepatitis B; however, people with chronic hepatitis B may be treated with anti-viral medications. These are specialised drugs so see your doctor and hepatitis specialist. There is no treatment for acute hepatitis B infection.

If you get chronic hepatitis B, stay in contact with your Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) or GP, and have regular tests even if you feel well. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbal or complementary medicines, as some can be harmful to your liver. Exercise and eat a healthy diet to help maintain a normal body weight and if possible reduce alcohol and tobacco use.

Preventing Hepatitis B

You can get vaccinated for hepatitis B talk to your doctor at your local clinic or Aboriginal Medical Service.

The hepatitis B vaccine is safe and works to protect you from hepatitis B. You need to have three injections of the vaccine within 6 months, followed by a blood test 4 weeks after your last injection to make sure the vaccine has worked. This will give you the best chance at developing protection against hepatitis B for life. People who have a weakened immune system may need a booster and your doctor can monitor this for you.

To reduce the risk of transmission of hepatitis B:

  • use condoms (and water-based lube) during sex
  • avoid sharing objects that may have traces of blood such as nail scissors, razors and toothbrushes
  • ┬ádo not share injecting equipment including needles, syringes
  • always use new injecting equipment
  • always wash your hands before and after injecting
  • make sure body artists use new and sterile equipment for tattooing, body piercing and other body art
  • wear disposable gloves if you give someone first aid or are cleaning up blood or body fluids

Hepatitis B and pregnant women 

Hepatitis B can be passed on to baby around the time of birth. If a mother has hepatitis B, her baby will be given immunoglobulin (antibodies) and the first hepatitis B vaccination within 12 hours of birth. Your baby must get 3 additional doses in the first 6 months of life. Then after 1 year your baby will need a test to see if the vaccines have worked. This is highly effective and will protect your baby for life from hepatitis B.

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