What is it?
Hepatitis B is the most common infection of the liver. It shares the same transmission route as human-immunodeficiency virus (HIV), through contact with the blood or other body fluids (ie semen and vaginal fluid) of an infected person. But it is known to be 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.
According to the World Health Organisation about two billion people worldwide have been infected with the hepatitis B and about 600,000 people die every year due to the consequences of hepatitis B. Sexual intercourse and injecting drug use are common pathways for hepatitis B infection.
Hepatitis B is a big public health problem for Malaysia. According to Ministry records, 1.4 million Malaysians suffer from Hepatitis B. Most of the affected individuals are aged between 25 to 55 years old. In addition, it is estimated that one in every 20 cases of chronic liver disease is caused by the hepatitis B virus.
In Malaysia, hepatitis screening for blood donations have been carried out since 1991 in the National Blood Bank as most viral hepatitis spread through blood. If you received a blood transfusion before 1991, you could be at risk of hepatitis B infection.
Hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer and can lead to complications like:
- Chronic hepatitis (permanent liver inflammation)
- Liver cirrhosis (permanent scarring and hardening of the liver)
- Liver failure
Signs and symptoms
Hepatitis B shares similar signs and symptoms with hepatitis A, such as:
- Dark urine
- Abdominal pain
People affected with hepatitis B can take several months to a year to recover from the symptoms. Hepatitis B can also cause chronic liver infection that can later develop into cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Many infected individuals remain symptom free for as long as 20 or 30 years. However during this time the liver will be subject to damage from hepatitis B infection.
Who is at risk?
People at risk of hepatitis B infection are:
- People who live with or have sexual contact with an infected person
- Men who have sex with men
- People who have multiple sex partners
- Injection drug users
- Immigrants and children of immigrants from areas with high rates of hepatitis B
- Infants born to infected mothers
- Health care workers
- Haemodialysis patients
- People who received a transfusion of blood or blood products before 1987, when better tests to screen blood donors were developed
- International travellers
The hepatitis B vaccine offers effective protection against infection. Hepatitis B vaccination is covered under the National Immunisation Programme (NIP). It is administered for free to all Malaysian children in 3 doses with the first dose at birth and subsequent doses at 1 month and 6 months. It was first introduced in 1989. This means that adults born before this year are at risk of contracting hepatitis B.
Adolescents and at-risk adults who have not received the immunisation are recommended to get their 3 doses of hepatitis B vaccination. Other methods of preventing hepatitis B infection include practicing safe sex, not sharing drug needles and personal items such as toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers.