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What is Hepatitis B Virus?

Hepatitis B is a blood-borne or sexually transmitted disease which can cause serious health problems. About 300,000 new cases of hepatitis B occur each year in the United States. And even though a person infected with this virus may not show any signs of infection, they can unknowingly pass it on to others.

Hepatitis B is one of several viruses that can attack and damage the liver, a critically important organ in the upper-right side of your abdomen.  Hepatitis B is passed by infected body fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids and saliva. The virus can be spread through sexual contact or by contact with the blood of an infected person, during childbirth, or when drug abusers share needles.  Health care and childcare workers are also at risk.  Others at risk include anyone who has had a sexually transmitted disease, men who have had sex with men, anyone with multiple sexual partners, anyone who has been on dialysis, anyone living with someone with hepatitis, anyone with a tattoo, or anyone who has served time in prison.

The classic symptoms of hepatitis include fatigue, lost appetite, nausea, jaundiced skin or eyes, dark urine, upper-right sided abdominal pain, and muscle aches. Most people who get hepatitis become immune to it after the disease runs its course and then they can no longer pass it onto someone else.  However, 10% of infected people can develop chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis or hardening of the liver, or liver cancer.

Hepatitis B causes unique problems for pregnant women:  they face the risks of hepatitis themselves, and can pass the virus to their babies. About one in every 500 to 1,000 pregnant women is known to have hepatitis when she gives birth, but many more asymptomatic pregnant women may unknowingly be infected.

Fortunately, there is a blood test for Hepatitis B.  As a result, many doctors now recommend that hepatitis B virus testing should be part of routine prenatal care.  High risk individuals should get tested whether or not they are pregnant.

Other good news is that a vaccine is available to protect people from becoming infected with hepatitis B virus. Many doctors recommend vaccinating all babies after birth, and several states now require vaccination before kindergarten. Anyone who is at risk of becoming infected should also be vaccinated.

For more information, click here.

Created: 8/14/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.
Reviewed: 6/30/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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