The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is spread when contact is made with blood and bodily fluids contaminated with HBV. Several measures can be taken to prevent the spread of hepatitis B and some of these are described below.
- Routine screening of blood and blood products such as fresh frozen plasma and platelets before transfusions. Since the introduction of screening tests, the risk of transmission through blood transfusion has been significantly reduced worldwide.
- Hepatitis B can be spread via semen and vaginal fluids during unprotected sex, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Those with multiple sexual partners and new, unknown sexual partners are more at risk. Use of barrier contraceptives such as condoms can help prevent the transmission of hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis B is spread via contaminated needles used in hospitals or those shared by drug users. This can be prevented by the use of disposable needles in hospitals and by spreading awareness among drug abusers.
- The infection can also be passed from an infected mother to her newborn baby. This is called vertical transmission and can be prevented by vaccination.
- There are several vaccines that are available to protect against hepatitis B. The vaccine component is one of the viral envelope proteins, which the immune system recognises and starts to produce antibodies against. The vaccines are given in three doses over a period of three months. A protective response to the vaccine is defined as an anti-HBs antibody level of 10mIU/L or more in the patient’s blood. Ninety-five percent of children vaccinated achieve this protective level. Among those aged 40 years, the protective response achieved is around 90% and this falls to 75% in those older than 60. Any infants born to mothers infected with hepatitis B are immediately vaccinated as newborns.
- People who considered high risk for hepatitis and therefore in need of the vaccine include the following:
- Those with multiple sexual partners or those with sexual partners infected with hepatitis B
- Drug users who share needles
- People with chronic liver or kidney disease
- People who are at risk of exposure to blood and bodily fluids at work, such as healthcare workers
- People with HIV infection
- People travelling to regions with a high incidence of hepatitis B
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc