Hepatitis B

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.