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Ten Things Women and Mothers Can Do to Combat Hepatitis B

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

By Christine Kukka

Don’t know your hepatitis B status? Get tested. An estimated 75 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. Unfortunately, many doctors won’t test you for hepatitis B unless you request the test. If you or your parents come from a country with high rates of hepatitis B, or if you’ve been sexually active or have other risk factors , get tested. It could save your life.

Get tested for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). More than half of us will have an STI in our lifetime, and in the U.S. about half of new hepatitis B infections are sexually-transmitted. Many doctors don’t test for STIs. In a national survey of U.S. physicians, fewer than one-third routinely screened patients for STIs. To make matters worse, many women are afraid to talk to doctors about their sexual history and STI risk. Be brave, ask your doctor to test you for STIs and hepatitis B if you think you are at risk.

Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.
Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.

Get immunized against hepatitis B. Not sure if you’ve been immunized during childhood? Tell your healthcare provider and get tested and immunized. Even you were vaccinated in the past, getting a second vaccine series won’t harm you. If your partner has hepatitis B, getting vaccinated is critical to protect your health. Practice safe sex until you have received all three shots. About one to two months after your third shot, get tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (called titers). If you have at least 10 mIU/mL of surface antibodies, you are permanently protected against this serious liver disease.

Infected? In Love? Disclose. When you disclose your hepatitis B status before sex – even if it’s safe sex with a condom – you don’t jeopardize your partner’s health or his/her trust in you. Talking about hepatitis B helps reduce the stigma surrounding this infection and may prompt the person to get vaccinated. How do you tell a potential partner that you have hepatitis B? Calmly and carefully. Do some research so you have a thorough understanding about hepatitis B, which will make it easier for you to calmly explain it. The more you know, the less you fear, and the more comfortable you will be in dispelling their fears and conveying a sense of truth and integrity.

Insist on sterile medical and tattoo equipment. Hepatitis B can live for several days on hard surfaces, including improperly-sterilized and re-used syringes and other medical devices. Whether you’re going for a tattoo or to a dentist or doctor’s office, it is your right to insist that all equipment is brand new (ask to see it removed from protective packaging) and properly sterilized. Visit a licensed, professional tattoo parlor and make sure all tattoo equipment has been sterilized and that needles come out of new packages.

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Infected and pregnant? Protect your baby from hepatitis B.

  • Make sure your newborn gets the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth. Nearly all hepatitis B-infected women will pass the infection onto their children during delivery, but you can stop that infection cycle. In about 90 percent of cases, immediate immunization will prevent infection. In some countries, it may be difficult to get just the single hepatitis B vaccine dose, but if you are able to immunize your baby at birth, you will have protected your child against a potentially dangerous liver disease. If you live in an area where HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) is available, make sure your newborn is also given a dose of HBIG at birth, this adds another layer of protection against infection.
  • Get your viral load (HBV DNA) tested early in your pregnancy. Some women with high viral loads (exceeding 200,000 IU/mL or 1 million copies/mL) are at high risk of infecting their newborns, even if the baby receives the first vaccine dose within 12 hours of birth. Ask your doctor to test your viral load, if it’s high, medical guidelines recommend treatment with the antiviral tenofovir during the last three months of your pregnancy to lower your viral load. If you doctor doesn’t test your viral load, be assertive and ask for the test.
  • Breastfeeding is OK, even if you have hepatitis B. If you’re infected with hepatitis B, you can safely breastfeed your baby, as long as the baby was vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth.
Maureen and her two daughters
Maureen and her two daughters

Your children infected? Don’t wait to start talking to them about hepatitis B. You need to start talking to them about germs and how to keep themselves and others safe when they’re young. (Listen to Jin’s Story #justB You about growing up with hepatitis B.) This conversation will be one of the hardest discussions you will ever have with your child, and you’ll be talking about it often in the years ahead, but you can do it!

To hear how other mothers handled talking about hepatitis B with their children, visit our Storytelling page and click on Maureen’s Story #justB Brave  and Maureen K’s Story #just B Assertive  to hear how these mothers navigated issues of disclosure and stigma with their daughters.

 Talk to your children about sex and safe sex practices. It’s critical to educate young people about sexual health and STIs. If we want our sons and daughters to feel empowered to take care of their sexual health, we have to change the culture that dictates the way we talk – or don’t talk – about sex. That means removing denial, uncertainty and shame so we have better conversations about sexual health, sexual assault prevention and STIs. It’s also important to encourage our children to have frank sexual health discussions with one another.

Take care of your health, get monitored regularly: It is important to get your hepatitis B monitored regularly – at least every year and more often if you have liver damage. Women living with hepatitis B tend to have lower rates of liver damage than men because estrogen appears to help protect the liver. But even if we lead a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol and cigarettes, as we age our immune system weakens and our viral load (HBV DNA) can start to rise. There is no cure yet for hepatitis B, but there are effective drugs that lower viral load and reduce the risk of liver damage.

Renseley and her husband.
Renseley and her husband.

Be happy. A mother or woman who is well rested, enjoys a healthy diet, gets plenty of exercise, has good relationships with friends and family members and knows how to ask for help when she needs it, is far better equipped to be happy and be the best mother she can be. It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself. Tough times happen, and sometimes a friend or family member may need us, and we will need to be strong during difficult times. If we take care of ourselves and ask for help, in the long run happiness will prevail. For a profile in joy and courage while fighting hepatitis B in her family, watch Renseley’s Story #justB Strong.

The Hepatitis B Foundation recently launched its storytelling campaign, sharing the stories of people affected by hepatitis B. Join a Twitter interview including Maureen K, parent of a daughter with hepatitis B, at 2 p.m. (EST), Tuesday, May 16, hosted by the Hepatitis B Foundation and StoryCenter. Click here for more information.

People Affected by Hepatitis B Share Stories of Family Secrets, Stigma and Diagnoses That Came Too Late

Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.
Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.

In an innovative storytelling initiative, people living with chronic hepatitis B open their hearts and share their stories of family secrets, stigma and diagnoses that came too late as they confront the impact of hepatitis B on themselves and the people they love.

The Hepatitis B Foundation, working with StoryCenter, has created unique video stories that share the experiences of people affected by hepatitis B, which affects one-third of the world’s population. The video stories, which debut May 1 in recognition of Hepatitis Awareness Month, are designed to raise awareness about the liver disease that affects 2 million in the U.S.

There is no better way to understand the human toll hepatitis B takes than to hear directly from those affected. Most people know very little about this disease and up to 75 percent of people living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. The hope is that these stories will put a human face on this infection and help improve testing, vaccination and treatment.

One storytelling video, featuring former ABC 7 News anchor Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, talks about how doctors fail to test people for hepatitis B. It was after the CEO of Newsworthy Media suffered liver damage that a doctor tested him for hepatitis B. “It was only because I (had) a medical reporter friend who connected me to a leading hepatologist that I got the attention I needed,” Wang, 49, explains in his story. After his diagnosis, he encouraged family members to be tested and his mother and siblings were also found to be infected by the disease that is easily transmitted at birth.

justB“We were left to connect the dots because the medical profession is failing to address an epidemic that kills more than 700,000 people a year,” he explained. “It’s bad enough that hepatitis B is a silent killer with few symptoms until it’s too late. It’s also ignored by Asian cultures that consider talk about deadly diseases to be taboo.”

While a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B has been available since 1982, many Americans did not have access to the vaccine. John Ellis Jr., another hepatitis B storyteller who lives in Pensacola, FL, was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B at age 16. He, like many people living with hepatitis B, does not know how he became infected.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked the doctor couldn’t tell me how I contracted it, as if finding out how I contracted hepatitis B would somehow cure me of it. As I grow older, what’s most important to me is maintaining my health.” Ellis explains in his story that he wants to be, “bigger than his diagnosis.” He does not want hepatitis to hold him back or define him. He is an entrepreneur and he has organized a charity bike ride to raise awareness and funding for research.

Another featured storyteller is pharmacist Bunmi Daramaja, of Elkridge, MD, who grew up in Nigeria and emigrated to the U.S. She struggled with her family’s reluctance to discuss her father’s death from liver cancer, resulting from chronic hepatitis B.

“Stigma is everywhere (in my African culture),” she explained in her story. “People don’t think about the facts of how the virus is transmitted– they are afraid to even touch someone who has it. Many people don’t even want to get tested, because treatment is either not available or costs too much money. They say, ‘What’s the point?’ This needs to change.

“In the U.S., the services are here, and I want to make sure that people of African origin know there are resources. I want to end this silence,” she explained.

The Hepatitis B Foundation’s Storytelling page helps tell the story about an infection in the U.S. that is under-diagnosed, under-treated and remains stigmatized across America.