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If Hepatitis B Is Sexually Transmitted, How Come My Partner Isn’t Infected?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

I thought hepatitis B was sexually transmitted? I just tested positive, but my partner tested negative, we’ve been together for years, what gives?

This question is a common one. Hepatitis B is indeed easily transmitted sexually, so why do some people — who were not vaccinated — never get hepatitis B from their sexual partners?

It comes down to variables, such as the type of sexual activity you engage in, the viral load (HBV DNA) of the infected partner, and who is on the receiving end of infectious body fluids, especially blood that contains the most virus and semen.

Having one partner infected, and other not, can add more stress to an already traumatic hepatitis B diagnosis. “It was very confusing and made me question how was it possible I was the only one infected,” said a woman who tested positive while her husband tested negative.  “I thought it was possibly a mistake, maybe I was a biological anomaly, which of course I was not.”

Let’s look at the factors that affect who gets infected and who doesn’t when two people have sex.

Viral load: Semen, vaginal fluids and blood all contain the hepatitis B virus (HBV), and the higher the viral load, the more infectious one’s blood and body fluids are. However, having an undetectable viral load doesn’t mean you won’t infected someone during unsafe sex. Even if a man has an undetectable viral load, studies show his semen still contains some HBV and can spread infection, though the risk is lower.

So the rule here is if a man tests positive for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), he must consider himself infectious.

The role of gender: In heterosexual relationships, uninfected women are at higher risk of getting infected by a male partner infected with hepatitis B, than the reverse. Women are on the receiving end of semen, which greatly increases their risk of becoming infected unless a condom is used.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

When a woman is infected with hepatitis B, an uninfected man is at risk through direct contact with her vaginal secretions, but that contact is lower-risk than a woman’s direct exposure to infectious semen during intercourse.

However, an infected woman who is menstruating is more likely to spread hepatitis B because blood can contain higher levels of HBV than vaginal secretions. That is why gloves and dental dams are recommended to provide a barrier against exposure.

The type of sexual activity: Certain sexual activities are far more efficient at spreading hepatitis B than others. Oral sex appears to have a lower rate of hepatitis B transmission than vaginal sex. Anal sex carries a very high risk of transmission because of tears in the skin that can occur during penetration improves transmission of HBV.

Fingering carries a lesser risk, unless the infected woman is menstruating or a person has bruises or cuts on their hands that allow entry to hepatitis B in semen or vaginal fluids, then gloves are recommended.

The “uninfected” partner could already have been infected and cleared hepatitis B: When a person is first diagnosed with hepatitis B, doctors often test his or her partner for only the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which indicates a current hepatitis B infection. If they are negative for HBsAg, they are immediately vaccinated.

If the partner isn’t also tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs or HBsAb), then no one knows if  the individual was infected years ago (or earlier in the relationship) with hepatitis B and cleared the acute infection.

Hepatitis B is not called the “silent” infection for nothing — many people who get hepatitis B never have any symptoms and never realize they were infected. As a result, a wife, husband, partner or lover who tested negative for HBsAg, may actually have been infected in the past and cleared the infection and now has protective hepatitis B surface antibodies to forever safeguard them from infection. If they’re immediately vaccinated and retested after the three-dose vaccination, they will test positive for surface antibodies, without ever knowing that their antibodies resulted from a past infection, not immunization.

Bottom line, if one of you have been diagnosed and the other is not infected, it is unusual but not uncommon. Get tested and immediately vaccinated if the uninfected partner tests negative for the hepatitis B surface antibody.

Take a quiz to find out how much you know about hepatitis B transmission: click here.

It’s Hepatitis Awareness Month: Five Reasons We Don’t Get Tested, and How to Overcome Them

Members of Drexel University's Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association participate in a hepatitis B screening program at a Chinese Christian church in Philadelphia.
Members of Drexel University’s Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association participate in a hepatitis B screening program at a Chinese Christian church in Philadelphia.

May is Hepatitis Awareness month. Why do we need an annual reminder about hepatitis B? Because 65 percent of the estimated 2.2 million people in the U.S. living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected.

Studies show when people know their hepatitis B status, they’re more likely to get monitored regularly, get treatment, and take steps to avoid passing on the disease to partners and their children.

So why are so many Americans unaware of their hepatitis B infection? Here are five roadblocks that stop us from getting tested for hepatitis B, and what how we can do to overcome them.

We feel fine, so we assume we’re not infected. Hepatitis B rarely causes symptoms. There are very few sensory nerves around the liver, so when a viral hepatitis infection strikes, we rarely feel its effects. As a result, most of us – especially if we were infected as children or newborns – never experience any symptoms for decades. So remember, “feeling OK” is no excuse to avoid testing. Continue reading "It’s Hepatitis Awareness Month: Five Reasons We Don’t Get Tested, and How to Overcome Them"

How Was I Infected with Hepatitis B? Making the Journey from Anger to Acceptance

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

“How did I get infected? Who could have infected me?” These questions are common when we are first diagnosed with hepatitis B.

Dumbfounded by the news, we struggle to understand when this infection could have occurred and who could have infected us with a virus that now threatens our health and well-being.

This diagnosis not only affects our health, it can weaken the trust we’ve placed in family members, friends and lovers. It threatens to dismantle basic beliefs we’ve held about fairness and honesty, and the assumption that if we treated people well that we would be treated fairly in return. Infections know no moral codes and ignore all the unspoken deals we have made with the universe. Continue reading "How Was I Infected with Hepatitis B? Making the Journey from Anger to Acceptance"

Romance in the Air? Take a Deep Breath and Disclose

Image courtesy of tiverylucky, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of tiverylucky, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Valentine’s Day may be a time to celebrate romance, but first you need a relationship. When you have chronic hepatitis B, starting a relationship and initiating sex is fraught with stress, hard disclosures, and the potential for break-up before an intimate relationship can even begin.

Recently, the Hepatitis B Foundation received this heart-breaking post from a 33 year-old man who thought his “inactive” hepatitis B could not be transmitted sexually.

“I’ve lived my entire life with this, but always thought it was just a normal thing (my mother said many Asians have it) and thought it was nothing to be concerned about as I never showed symptoms,” he wrote. “My doctor never said anything either. I lived my life thinking being a carrier was nothing out of the ordinary, and that I … could transfer it via blood, but could not sexually. Continue reading "Romance in the Air? Take a Deep Breath and Disclose"

Preparing for College, Dating and Disclosing Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When my daughter, who has chronic hepatitis B, packed for her freshman year of college, I peppered her with warnings about the need for standard precautions and condoms. I suggested wording for a future conversation where she would disclose her infection and negotiate safe sex with a potential partner.

I hoped these verbal dress rehearsals would empower and protect her, especially if that potential boyfriend turned her down. I wanted her to know that any rejection would not be about her or her hepatitis B, it would be about his fears. Continue reading "Preparing for College, Dating and Disclosing Hepatitis B"