Hepatitis B: Preventable and Treatable
What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a potentially fatal liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Chronic hepatitis B can slowly destroy the liver over many years, increasing the risk of serious diseases like cirrhosis (liver scarring) and liver cancer. In fact, hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer worldwide, and is second only to tobacco as a cause of human cancer. In the United States and around the world, Asians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately impacted by hepatitis B.
How is hepatitis B transmitted?
Hepatitis B is transmitted through infected blood and bodily fluids. This can occur through unprotected sexual contact, contaminated blood and needles (e.g., injecting drugs, tattooing or improperly sterilized medical or dental equipment), sharing sharp personal items like razors or toothbrushes, and from an infected mother to newborn. For Asians and Pacific Islanders, the most common way hepatitis B is transmitted is from an infected mother who unknowingly transmits the virus to her newborn during pregnancy or delivery. Hepatitis B is NOT transmitted through casual contact – it cannot be spread by sharing food, water or eating utensils, or by hugging, kissing, hand-holding, coughing or sneezing.
What can I do to protect myself and family?
The good news is that hepatitis B can be prevented, and it can be managed with the help of your healthcare provider. Here are three simple steps you can take to protect yourself from hepatitis B – and encourage your family and friends to do the same.
- Get tested: Hepatitis B can easily be detected with a quick and simple blood test, often available for free or reduced cost at your healthcare provider’s office and at many clinics. The hepatitis B test is not included in routine physical examination blood tests, so it is important that you specifically request a test if you don’t know your status. Everyone should get tested – particularly Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
- Get vaccinated: If your hepatitis B blood test is negative, there is a safe and effective vaccine that can provide lifelong protection from the virus. All newborns should receive the hepatitis B vaccine at birth.
- Get treated: If you test positive for hepatitis B, see a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable about hepatitis B for regular monitoring of the health of your liver and to talk about whether treatment would be appropriate for you. There are currently seven approved treatments available that can help control hepatitis B and reduce the risk of further liver damage such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
The hepatitis B virus often does not cause noticeable symptoms until advanced liver disease has developed – so as many as two-thirds of people who have the virus do not know they are infected. That’s why hepatitis B is often called a “silent” disease. If symptoms do develop, they can include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine, fatigue, nausea and vomiting.
Who is most affected by hepatitis B?
Although anyone can contract hepatitis B, Asian and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately impacted. In fact, hepatitis B is the greatest health disparity between Asian Americans and the general U.S. population. Approximately 1 million Asian Americans are living with chronic hepatitis B infection – that’s more than half of all cases in the United States. As many as 1 in 10 Asian Americans born outside the United States is affected, which is a rate more than 20 times higher than that of the total U.S. population.
Why are Asian and Pacific Islanders disproportionately impacted?
First-generation Asians from China, Korea and Vietnam and those from the Pacific Islands are at particularly high risk for hepatitis B due to low infant immunization rates against the disease in those countries. Most Asians and Pacific Islanders who have hepatitis B contracted it during childbirth from their mothers – that is why it is common to see multiple members of the same family affected by hepatitis B.
What are the serious consequences of hepatitis B?
If left untreated, hepatitis B can lead to serious liver damage over the long term, and even cancer. Without appropriate treatment or monitoring, 1 in 4 individuals with hepatitis B will die from cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. In fact, it is because of their high rates of hepatitis B that Asian Americans are nearly three times more likely to develop liver cancer compared to Caucasians.
Get Tested – Fight Back Against This “Silent” Disease
Hepatitis B can be diagnosed with a simple blood test – yet as many as two-thirds of Americans do not know they are infected. For Asian Americans, 1 in 12 are chronically infected. Asking for a blood test is the first step towards preventing and treating hepatitis B.
Were You or Your Parents Born Outside the United States?
The map below shows countries where the prevalence of hepatitis B is the highest (click map to enlarge). If you or your parents were born in one of the countries in yellow or red, then it is very important to get tested for hepatitis B since you could be at high risk for infection.
Protecting Yourself and Your Family
Hepatitis B is preventable and treatable, but those who have the virus and don’t know it are missing out on vital opportunities to protect themselves from serious liver damage, including liver cancer. They also run the risk of unintentionally passing the hepatitis B virus to their loved ones.
The first step to protecting yourself and your family is to know your status by getting a simple blood test. If you test negative for hepatitis B, there is a safe and effective vaccine that can bring you lifelong protection – it’s widely available in the United States. If you test positive for hepatitis B, you can talk to your healthcare provider about whether treatment is right for you and get regular screenings to monitor the health of your liver.
Hepatitis B testing and vaccination are often available for free or reduced cost at many community events and clinics, local health departments or at your healthcare provider’s office. Find a local campaign near you to learn more about the hepatitis B testing and vaccination resources in your community or to get involved.