Hepatitis B is caused by a virus which attacks and damages the liver. It's spread by close contact with blood or other body fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis B was a common disease in New Zealand until a vaccine was introduced in the 1980s.
Hepatitis B is passed on through close contact with blood and other body fluids from an infected person, eg, from cuts and scratches, sharing toothbrushes, and sex without a condom.
Hepatitis B can also be passed on from pregnant women to their babies, usually at birth. If you're pregnant and have hepatitis B, your baby can be given special antibodies to protect them.
If you have hepatitis B, you are infectious for several weeks before signs appear until weeks or months later. Some people are infectious for years.
Children who have the disease usually develop a very mild illness and sometimes they have no sign of illness at all. The illness itself is more serious for adults.
Most adults with hepatitis B recover fully. On rare occasions, people don’t clear the virus from their blood and continue to carry the virus. Many years later liver damage and liver cancer may develop. A simple blood test can tell whether you have cleared the virus, or if the virus is still in your body.
If you have hepatitis B, the symptoms can include:
- dark urine
- pale bowel motions
- joint and muscle pain
Symptoms appear 6 weeks to 6 months after you catch hepatitis B (often 2–3 months).
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis B. In most cases, your immune system will clear the infection. Treatment options include:
- rest – hepatitis B can make you tired
- protect your liver – the liver processes medication and alcohol, so avoid alcohol and review any medication with your doctor.
It’s important to protect children from hepatitis B by getting them immunised on time. They’re not protected until they’ve had all 3 doses.
All children in New Zealand can be immunised against hepatitis B as part of their free childhood immunisations at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.
This disease is covered on the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule. The vaccine used is INFANRIX®- hexa.
Making a decision about immunisation
Risks associated with hepatitis B
- The virus causes liver infection and acute illness.
- Severe illness is rare in children. Fatalities are rare and are more likely in adults.
- Some people become carriers of the virus, especially children (6 in 100).
- Liver cirrhosis occurs in 1 in 20 carriers (half of these will die).
- Liver cancer occurs in 1 in 10 male carriers and 1 in 20 female carriers and usually leads to death.
Risks associated with Hepatitis B or Haemophilus influenzae-Hepatitis B vaccines
- Anaphylaxis occurs extremely rarely.
- No links have been reported between the vaccine and multiple sclerosis (a disease of the nervous system), diabetes, or encephalitis.
If you’ve got hepatitis B and you’re pregnant, you can pass the disease on to your baby when they’re born.
Hepatitis B vaccine and immunoglobulin (a blood product with special antibodies) can be given to your baby straight after birth to prevent the baby from becoming infected. This protects almost all babies.
The baby then follows the usual National Immunisation Schedule and a blood test is taken at 9 months to check the baby is protected from hepatitis B. If they’re not protected, a further 2 doses of hepatitis B vaccine may be required.
For further information read the HealthEd resource Hepatitis B: Information for Pregnant Women.