Hepatitis B, sometimes called hep B or HBV, is a virus carried in the blood and body fluids which infects and damages the liver and is the most widespread form of hepatitis worldwide. In the UK, approximately one in 350 people are thought to be chronically infected with hepatitis B. In some inner-city areas as many as one in 60 pregnant women may be infected as the virus is very common in Asia and the Far East.
Hepatitis B can be spread by blood to blood contact. However, it is also present in other body fluids which can be a source of infection. Even a tiny amount of blood from someone who has the virus can pass on the infection if it gets into your bloodstream, through an open wound, a cut or scratch, or from a contaminated needle, through a mucosal surface (lips, mouth, genitalia, bowel) or from mother to child around birth. Transmission occurs by sexual intercourse; hepatitis B is very infectious, 50 – 100 times more infectious than HIV. The virus is able to survive outside the body for at least a week which means objects and surfaces contaminated with dried blood also can pose a risk.
It damages the liver in the same way as alcohol leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and primary liver cancer. There is a simple blood test to find out whether you have the virus.
There is a very effective vaccination for adults which has been available for the last 30 years. Three doses are required over a period of 6 months and there is very little in the way of side effects. Immunity is usually for life. Vaccination against hepatitis B is also going to form part of the new NHS guidelines for childhood vaccinations in the UK as it already is in the USA.