Hepatitis B is a viral infection that is spread through the blood and other bodily fluids (semen, saliva and vaginal fluid) of an infected person. The hepatitis B virus (HBV) causes inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) and may also cause long term liver damage.
Who gets it and how serious is it?
As the virus may be transmitted by contact with blood or body fluids from an infected person, certain people may be at a higher risk of acquiring hepatitis B. These include:
- Those coming into contact with blood products i.e. healthcare workers, prison officers
- Sexual partners and close family and household contacts of an infected person
- Injecting drug users who share needles
- People who change sexual partners frequently
- Travellers to countries where hepatitis B is common
- Babies born to infected mothers
Hepatitis B can cause acute infection (which lasts less than six months). Only about 70% of people infected with the virus develop symptoms (although they are still able to pass the virus onto others).
Most adults will clear the virus from their bodies within this time and become immune.
However, some people, particularly babies and children, are unable to do this and remain infected for longer, sometimes for life. These people have chronic hepatitis B infection and may go on to develop serious liver disease such as cirrhosis or cancer. More information about hepatitis B is available from the NHS Direct Wales website.
Anyone with acute hepatitis B should be assessed by a doctor. There is no specific treatment but rest, certain changes to the diet and no alcohol may be advised.
In chronic infection, treatment strategies are evolving. Antiviral medication may be used but not all patients benefit from treatment.
How common is it?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in the UK the prevalence of chronic hepatitis B infection is 0.3%. Hepatitis B is more common in other parts of the world such as south east Asia, Africa, the middle and Far East and southern and eastern Europe. WHO estimates that there are 350 million chronically infected people world-wide.
More information about the surveillance of hepatitis B infection in Wales is available from the Public health Wales Health Protection Division microsite by following the link: rates and surveillance of hepatitis B in Wales
There is a vaccine available to prevent hepatitis B infection. The vaccine should be considered by all individuals who are at increased risk of being infected with the hepatitis B virus.
More information about immunisation, including hepatitis B vaccination can be found on the NHS Choices website.
Minimising impact in Wales
Public Health Wales has established the Blood Borne Virus Programme which collects and collates data on the levels of blood borne viral infections, including hepatitis B, in the Welsh population. Such data allows significant trends and any particular groups of the population affected to be identified, and enables effective delivery of high quality, accessible and appropriate specialist public health services, both in partnership and support of other national and local bodies.