- Hepatitis B is a chronic disease and is difficult to clear. However, it can be controlled through the use of oral medications that are usually administered to a patient for life.
- In sub-Saharan Africa, hepatitis B is the main cause of liver cancer (7 patients out of 10). Most patients who are diagnosed with liver cancer die within a year.
- Vaccines are generally given in 2–3 initial doses a month apart followed by a booster dose at six months or later. Completing the series of shots fully protects the patient.
This week the world marked World Hepatitis Day under the theme: "Hepatitis Can't Wait". The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives and especially the delivery of healthcare services across the world. However, other diseases still need attention and that is why all stakeholders must join efforts against hepatitis. In this article, I will share some basic facts about hepatitis B and how we can stay safe.
What kind of disease is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver, causing cell damage, scarring, and cancer. Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) is one of five types of viral hepatitis. Others are hepatitis A, C, D, and E.
How common is hepatitis B?
HBV is a major global health problem. In Africa, about 2 people out of 20 have Hepatitis B.
How is HBV Transmitted?
Hepatitis B is found in the blood and or blood serum. Worldwide, mother-to-child transmission after birth (during the perinatal period) is the most common route of transmission.
It can also be spread through unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person. Other causes are exposures to sharp instruments, needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment used by an infected person.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Like HIV, most patients do not know they have Hepatitis B until it is too late. Those who develop symptoms early on may present with jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes), flu-like illness, dark urine, joint pains, fatigue, and although rare, sometimes liver failure. Late in the disease, patients may develop fluid in their belly, lose appetite and weight, vomit blood, fail to pass urine, experience confusion, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
What is the adverse form of this disease if it is left untreated?
Liver failure, cancer, and scarring, fluid in the belly, vomiting of blood, kidney and brain failure, and malnutrition.
How is HBV diagnosed?
Most people don't have symptoms, making regular screening crucial. Clinicians use blood tests to diagnose hepatitis B infection. There are several tests that help determine: whether one has hepatitis B; whether it is chronic or acute; if one is immune to hepatitis B after vaccination; if the virus has cleared from your body, and whether they are protected from future infection.
It is also important to highlight that there is a risk of misdiagnosis if you only use symptoms to diagnose the disease. It is therefore critical that the right tests are carried out.
What are the treatment options available for hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a chronic disease and is difficult to clear. However, it can be controlled through the use of oral medications that are usually administered to a patient for life.
The treatment aims at controlling the virus with the hope of preventing liver scarring, failure, and cancer. It is important to note that liver cancer can be cured if detected early. Unfortunately, most patients present late when little can be done for them. In sub-Saharan Africa, hepatitis B is the main cause of liver cancer (7 patients out of 10). Most patients who are diagnosed with liver cancer die within a year.
How can one live with hepatitis B after diagnosis?
To cope with HBV, a patient should learn about the disease. Staying connected with family and friends is important for mental health. Eat a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.
It is important to avoid drinking alcohol and taking over-the-counter medication without consulting the doctor. A patient should also be tested for hepatitis A and C and be vaccinated for hepatitis A.
Can hepatitis B be prevented?
Yes. The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is safe and effective. Vaccines are generally given in 2–3 initial doses a month apart followed by a booster dose at six months or later. Completing the series of shots fully protects the patient.
For all children born to mothers who have hepatitis B, a vaccine given at birth is recommended.
Dr Christopher Opio, Consultant Gastroenterologist, Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.