What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a virus that affects the liver. It is very infectious, and can result in serious long-term health problems. Hepatitis B can cause different symptoms, including jaundice, tiredness, listlessness, fever, dark urine and pale coloured stools (faeces). However, many people may experience no symptoms at all.
How is the virus transmitted?
- Sexual contact
- Blood to blood contact, i.e. sharing of injecting equipment, sharing razors, needle stick injuries, contaminated blood products
- Mother to baby (vertical transmission)
- The virus can be found in all body fluids, but is much more concentrated in blood, semen and vaginal secretions.
What happens if somebody has hepatitis B?
In 90-95% of cases, the infection will resolve spontaneously and the person infected will be left with a “natural immunity” to further Hep. B infection.
In 5 to 10 percent of all cases, the virus remains active. This is known as “chronic carrier status”, and this group may develop long-term health problems. They also remain infectious to others via the routes already described.
Long-term health risks
- Liver cirrhosis
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
In recent years some people with chronic hepatitis B have been receiving a new medication. Although the treatment can cause side effects, it does cure some patients of the disease. A specialist can decide whether a course of medical treatment is likely to help.
How can you avoid infection?
- Safer injecting techniques
- Practising “safer sex”
- Use of “universal precautions” when handling body fluids
- Vaccination against hepatitis B
Vaccination against hepatitis B (and A) is offered in many prisons. It makes a great difference whether the service promotes take-up of the vaccine in a proactive way, or if the service is only available ‘on demand’. Sometimes, prisoners are not informed about the availability of the Hep. B. (or the Hep. A+B combination) vaccination. People in certain professions, such as prison officers, can have their employer pay for the vaccination. Daily social contact presents no risk of infection.