What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a virus mainly transmitted through blood to blood contact. It can also, in some cases, be transmitted through unprotected penetrative sex. The virus can also be found in vaginal fluids and saliva, although it is not known whether it is present in large enough quantities to transmit.
Hepatitis B is a strain of the Hepatitis family, which means it is a virus that affects the liver. It affects people differently, however. Some people may only have the virus and feel ill for a few weeks, and then make a full recovery. For others, the virus may stay with them for life and cause fatal liver damage. Some people may carry the virus but never experience any symptoms or disease.
Is it true that Hepatitis B is highly infectious?
It is more infectious than HIV or even Hepatitis C. This means that a tiny amount of body fluid infected with the virus may be enough to infect someone else. It is also a very resilient virus, which means it can survive outside of the body for long periods of time. It takes about 6 months for Hepatitis B to show up in a blood test, from the moment of exposure to the virus. This is known as the incubation period, and during this time, some people may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, jaundice, ‘flu-like illness and joint aches and pains. Other people may not experience any symptoms at all.
Often it is not necessary to start treatment if you have Hepatitis B
This is because many people get over the illness within six months. Treatment such as Interferon may, however, benefit those who have had the virus longer than six months.
A vaccine does exist to protect against Hepatitis B
Three doses of the vaccine are needed for full protection. A blood test to check for antibodies to the virus may be advisable a few months after the course of injections is finished, to check immunisation is complete. There are some people who may require a repeat course of injections after not responding fully to the first course. The vaccine may be advisable for anyone perceived to be "at risk". This includes healthcare workers, sex workers, injecting drug users and gay men. A vaccine is available from either your GP or your local GUM clinic. Some drug agencies may also have access to vaccinations. A test for Hepatitis B is available, again through your GP or local GUM clinic. Be aware, though, that going to your GP means that your request will be noted on your medical records, which may affect life insurance and mortgage policies later in life.
Health & Safety Guidelines
Below are some general guidelines that everyone should observe, both to help prevent the spread of most Blood-Borne Viruses (namely Hepatitis B and C, and HIV) but also just for basic health and safety.
- Clean up all blood spills with undiluted household bleach. This is mostly relevant to Hepatitis C, as it can live outside of the body in blood for a matter of weeks.
- Avoid sharing 'personal' items, namely razors, toothbrushes, scissors, nailclippers, etc.
- Dispose of sanitary products or other blood-stained items either by incineration (burning) or by tying them up into a plastic bag or container before placing in the bin.
- Do not share any equipment used for injecting drugs. This includes needles, swabs, syringes, filters, spoons, water glasses, tourniquets, lighters, etc. Anything that comes into contact with contaminated blood should be avoided when injecting drugs. Do not draw up injectable drugs from a shared pool, either.
- Practice Safer Sex. This involves minimising the risk of transferring body fluids from person to another. This could be through using a condom or femidom (female condom), or through having sex that doesn't involve penetration. Safer sexual practices include masturbating each other and oral sex. In terms of Hepatitis B and C, be particularly careful around any sexual activities that involve blood. This includes any kind of sex during menstruation (on a period) or "traumatic sex" where blood is drawn either intentionally or otherwise.
- Get checked out at your local GUM clinic for any other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). It is thought that the presence of other STIs can increase the risk of transmission of viruses such as HIV or Hepatitis B and C. This is because, firstly, the immune system is busy battling with one infection. And, secondly, an infection such as herpes can create a weakening of the skin's membrane, making it easier for other viruses to get in.
- Ensure that sterile needles are used for ear and body piercing, tattooing, acupuncture, and scarification.
- Carefully clean cuts and wounds with detergent and clean water and wash hands thoroughly afterwards. Cover wounds with a waterproof dressing.
- Safely dispose of used needles and injecting equipment. Pharmacies across the city have sharps disposal units, as does the Harbour Centre, or check with your GP.
- If you know you have Hepatitis B, C or HIV, you must avoid registering as a blood/organ donor.
- If you know you have Hepatitis B or C, you must be careful around food preparation, and use gloves for washing up.
- Ask about vaccinations against Hepatitis B.
This is the information as we know it. If you think you may have been at risk from any of these viruses, you can ask for a test at your local GUM clinic or your GP. At a GUM clinic, tests will also screen for syphilis.
A useful Website: The British Liver Trust. www.britishlivertrust.org.uk