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On Rise: Hepatitis B

On Rise: Hepatitis B

  • July 31, 2019
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Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The condition can be self-limiting or can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis or liver cancer. Hepatitis viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis in the world but other infections, toxic substances (e.g. alcohol, certain drugs), and autoimmune diseases can also cause hepatitis.

There are 5 main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. These 5 types are of greatest concern because of the burden of illness and death they cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread. In particular, types B and C lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer.

Hepatitis B

India has over 40 million cases of chronic Hep B. It most commonly spread from mother to child at birth (perinatal transmission), or through horizontal transmission (exposure to infected blood), especially from an infected child to an uninfected child during the first 5 years of life. The development of chronic infection is very common in infants infected from their mothers or before the age of 5 years.

Hepatitis B is also spread by needle-stick injury, tattooing, piercing and exposure to infected blood and body fluids, such as saliva and, menstrual, vaginal, and seminal fluids. Sexual transmission of hepatitis B may occur, particularly in unvaccinated men who have intercourse with men and heterosexual persons with multiple intimate partners or contact with sex workers.

Most people do not experience any symptoms when newly infected. However, some people have acute illness with symptoms that last several weeks, including yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. A small subset of persons with acute hepatitis can develop acute liver failure, which can lead to death.

In some people, the hepatitis B virus can also cause a chronic liver infection that can later develop into cirrhosis (a scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

Prevention

A safe and effective vaccine that offers a 98-100% protection against hepatitis B is available. Preventing hepatitis B infection averts the development of complications including the development of chronic disease and liver cancer.

In most cases, 1 of the following 2 options is considered appropriate:

  • a 3-dose schedule of hepatitis B vaccine, with the first dose (monovalent) given at birth and the second and third doses (monovalent or combined vaccine) given at the same time as the first and third doses of diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus – (DTP vaccine); or
  • a 4-dose schedule, where a monovalent birth dose is followed by 3 monovalent or combined vaccine doses, usually given with other routine infant vaccines.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B. Therefore, care is aimed at maintaining comfort and adequate nutritional balance, including replacement of fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhoea. Most important is the avoidance of unnecessary medications.

Chronic hepatitis B infection can be treated with medicines, including oral antiviral agents. Treatment can slow the progression of cirrhosis, reduce incidence of liver cancer and improve long term survival.

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