Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B

The first recorded hepatitis B epidemic occurred in 1883, in Bremen, Germany. It wasn’t until 1965 that the virus was discovered, and the early 1980s for a vaccine to be developed.

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a preventable liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). It ranges in severity from a mild illness, lasting a few weeks (acute), to a serious long-term (chronic) illness that can lead to permanent liver disease or liver cancer. While it’s highly infectious (about 100 times more infectious than HIV), 90% of people with hepatitis B will eventually clear the infection on their own and develop a lifelong immunity.

About eight to 10% of adults who acquire hepatitis B remain chronically infected. People who are chronically infected can remain symptom free for years. However, the ongoing liver inflammation associated with chronic hepatitis B can increase risk for complications like cirrhosis (severe liver scarring) and/or liver cancer. These individuals can also unknowingly infect others with hepatitis B.

How does it spread?

Hepatitis B is spread by direct contact with infectious blood, semen and body fluids. This can happen in many different ways:

  • a break in the skin such as a cut
  • bleeding gums
  • using improperly cleaned tattoo/piercing equipment
  • by sharing needles, toothbrushes or razors
  • during unprotected sexual contact
  • during birth, from a mother who has the virus

Hepatitis B is NOT spread by:

  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • hugging
  • using the same dishes or cutlery as an infected person

Signs and Symptoms

About half the people infected with hepatitis B show no symptoms and don’t know they are infected.

About 90% of adults who become infected with hepatitis B completely recover from the infection after approximately six months. During this time of acute infection, people can either be symptom free or develop:

  • jaundice (skin and eyes turn yellow)
  • loss of appetite
  • pale stools
  • dark urine
  • fatigue
  • tenderness in the upper right side of the stomach area

How can I protect myself and people around me?

  • Get immunized.
  • Avoid potential sources of contamination by  blood and bodily fluids.
  • Practice safer sex.
  • Do not share personal hygiene tools (toothbrushes or razors), needles, or any drug equipment.

Fortunately, there’s a vaccine that’s 95% effective in preventing hepatitis B infection and its chronic consequences.

Heptatitis B immunization is an “inactivated” immunization. This means that you need to complete the series to be protected against hepatitis B. If the series is not completed your body’s immune system will not be able to protect itself from hepatitis B. It is very important that you receive all the immunizations, and they need to be given on time.

In Yukon, hepatitis B is a part of the combination immunization DTaP-HB-IPV-Hib, which protects infants and children from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Hepatitis B, polio and Haemophilus influenzae type B, all in one shot.   

The Yukon immunization schedule calls for:

  • DTaP-HB-IPV-Hib  immunization at 2, 4 and 6 months of age

Hepatitis B vaccine can also be give on its own to children and adults who were not immunized as infants.

The primary series needs to be given for you to be protected. Contact your local health centre for drop-in and appointment times to be immunized.

Most children and adults have no reactions to immunization. Some people have minor reactions to immunization. These reactions don’t interfere with day-to-day activities and go away on their own in two to three days. The most common reaction is swelling and redness with or without tenderness around the injection site. A few people develop fever (one to 18 in 100 children immunized), headaches or muscle pain. If this is the case with you or your child, you many choose to give/take a fever medication such as acetaminophen if the fever is 38.5°C or higher.

Any fever medication such as acetaminophen, before the immunization is not recommended.  

More About Hepatitis B

The treatments for hepatitis B can suppress the infection and sometimes cure it. There are drugs that interfere with the virus or improve the immune system’s ability to fight the infection. The goal of treatment is to reduce the risk of serious complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. There are several new therapies in the management of hepatitis B. You need to talk to a health care provider specializing in viral hepatitis to learn of the various therapeutic options that may be appropriate for you.

Thanks to the Yukon immunization program and immunization programs throughout Canada, we have a very low rate of hepatitis B in the territory.

In Yukon:

  • 0.5% of the population has had hepatitis B and cleared it
  • 0.2% of the population is chronically infected with hepatitis B

Both these figures are well below the Canadian rates, which are 5% and 0.8%, respectively.

Some countries around the world have very high rates of hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is an important vaccine to discuss if you are travelling outside Canada.