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HEPATITIS B

What is it and how is it spread?

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver transmitted by contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. It can be passed from mother to baby, through a puncture to the skin, when blood splashes into the eyes, nose or mouth, or through unprotected sex. Worldwide more than 240 million people are thought to be infected with hepatitis B. Around 780,000 people die each year as a result of hepatitis B infection.1

Who is at risk?

Hepatitis B is most common in parts of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. High rates of infection are found in the Amazon and southern parts of Eastern and Central Europe, and it can also be found in the Middle East and India. The risk of contracting hepatitis B for most travellers is low.1

What are the symptoms?

Often, hepatitis B has no symptoms. After 40–160 days, people with an acute (short-term) form of the disease may have symptoms including loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea (feeling sick), vomiting and occasionally fever. Dark urine, pale faeces and yellowing of eyes and skin may also occur.1

Children are more likely than adults to develop a chronic (long-term) form of the infection. People with chronic hepatitis B may have no symptoms, but many years after their initial infection, patients may go on to develop scarring of the liver, liver cancer and can even die after being infected with the virus.1,2

How can it be prevented?

When travelling, avoid contact with blood and bodily fluids to reduce the risk of infection. This includes using protective precautions where contact is unavoidable, for example if you are working, and avoiding:1

  • Unprotected sex with new partners
  • Tattooing, piercing and acupuncture (unless sterile equipment is used)
  • Sharing needles and other drug injecting equipment
  • Sharing shaving equipment

You could also consider taking a sterile medical equipment kit.1

Hepatitis B vaccination should be considered for all travellers who put themselves at risk, including:1

  • People who have unprotected sex
  • People who may be directly exposed to blood through their occupation
  • People who could be exposed to contaminated needles through drug use, or medical or dental care
  • People with medical conditions such as those planning on undergoing dialysis overseas and those travelling for medical care
  • People who take part in contact sports
  • People who are adopting children from a country with an intermediate or high prevalence of hepatitis B

How can it be treated?

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis B. Treatment aims to prevent liver scarring or liver cancer and reduce infectiousness. Treatment options include 'interferons' (which 'interfere' with virus reproduction) and antiviral drugs.1

Where can I get further information?

If you have any questions or concerns about exposure to hepatitis B, please speak to your doctor or travel health practitioner for more information.

Make sure you contact your GP or travel health practitioner in plenty of time before you travel to discuss the ways you can help to keep yourself healthy whilst away. You should try and contact them at least 4–6 weeks before your trip.

After your trip, you should contact your GP if you develop a fever or notice any other unusual symptoms.

  1. Travel Health Pro. Hepatitis B. Available at: https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/factsheet/50/hepatitis-b. Accessed August 2017.
  2. Fit For Travel. Hepatitis B. Available at: http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/advice/disease-prevention-advice/hepatitis-b.aspx. Accessed August 2017.

Date of preparation: November 2017
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