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My partner has been diagnosed with hepatitis B. Can transmission be prevented by vaccination?

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A hepatitis B diagnosis can be scary and confusing for both you and your loved ones, especially if you are unfamiliar with the virus. Hepatitis B is known to be sexually transmitted, and you may wonder how you can continue your relationship with someone who has been infected. The good news is that hepatitis B is vaccine preventable.This means that after you complete the vaccine series, you cannot contract hepatitis B through any modes of transmission; you are protected for life!

However, it is important to remember that the vaccine will only work if a person has not been previously infected. Therefore, it is necessary to take certain steps after your partner’s diagnosis to protect yourself from becoming infected.

The first step is to visit the doctor and get tested, even if you think that you do not have it. Since hepatitis B often has no symptoms for decades, testing is the only way to know your status. The doctor should perform the Hepatitis B Panel test – a simple blood draw that shows hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), hepatitis B surface antibody (HBsAb or anti-HBs), and hepatitis B core antibody total (HBcAb or anti-HBc). Looking at these three blood test results together will show if you have a current infection, have recovered from a past infection, or if you need to be protected through vaccination. Once you receive your results, this chart can help you understand what they mean.

Preventing Transmission through Vaccines:

If you test negative for HBsAg, HBsAb, and HBcAb, you are not protected from hepatitis B and are considered to have a high risk of contracting the virus from your partner or other means. To prevent transmission, you will need to begin your vaccination series as soon as possible.

The hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series taken over the span of 6 months. The first shot can be given at any time. The second dose should be given at least one month after the first shot, and the third and final dose should be separated from dose 2 by at least two months and dose 1 by at least 4 months.  While there is a minimum amount of time required between doses, there is no maximum amount of time. If you miss your second or third shot, you do not have to start the series over again; you can pick up where you left off! If your partner is pregnant and was diagnosed with hepatitis B, extra precautions need to be taken to prevent transmission to the child. Two shots will need to be given to the child in the delivery room: the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and Hepatitis B Immune Globulin (HBIG), if recommended and available in your country.  You can learn more about pregnancy and hepatitis B here.

After completing the series, a quick blood test called the “antibody titer” (anti-HBs titer) test can confirm that you have responded to the vaccine. This test, which should be given at least one month after you receive the third dose, will be greater than 10 mIU/mL if you are protected from hepatitis B. Like the vaccine, your doctor can administer the titer test.

Hepatitis B is spread through direct contact with blood. HBV  is also a sexually transmitted disease, so it is important to practice safe sex by using condoms throughout the duration of the vaccine series until the antibody titer test confirms that you are protected. While you wait for your body to create its defense, there are other steps that you can take to avoid transmission such as not sharing toothbrushes or sharp objects like razors.

The hepatitis B vaccine is the only way to fully protect yourself from the virus. Preventive measures such as using condoms can help prevent hepatitis B transmission, but without vaccination, there can still be some risk.

If you do not have a doctor or are worried about the cost of testing or vaccination, you can still get tested and vaccinated! In the United States, Federally Qualified Health Centers provide the hepatitis B vaccine at low- or no cost to individuals without insurance or with limited plans. You can search for a health center near you here. Internationally, you can search our Physicians Directory and the World Hepatitis Alliance member map to identify member organizations in your country that may have advice on doctors in your area. In addition, keep a lookout out for local health fairs and screenings; they may provide free vaccinations or testing for hepatitis B!

Newly Diagnosed with Hepatitis B? Acute or Chronic? Learning the Hep B Basics

Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve just been diagnosed with hepatitis B after a routine blood test or following a blood donation, you may be feeling overwhelmed with information about this complicated infection and references to acute or chronic hepatitis B.

Here is an explanation of these two terms and what happens when you’re first infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and body fluids. It can be spread during unprotected sex, unsafe medical procedures, exposure to blood that enters your body through a cut,  or by sharing personal items such as body jewelry or toothbrushes. Most commonly it is spread during childbirth when the mother is infected.

What is a chronic infection? When we’re infected as newborns or young children, our immature immune systems don’t notice or fight the virus and it travels to our liver and begins reproducing. With no opposition from our immune systems, a hepatitis B infection can continue for years. When a hepatitis B infection lasts longer than six months, it is considered a chronic or long-term infection. Most people with chronic hepatitis B were infected at birth or during early childhood. Immunization with the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG), if available, within 12 to 24 hours of birth can break this mother-to-child infection cycle, but the birth vaccine dose and often HBIG is not always available around the world.

What is an acute infection? When we’re infected with HBV as healthy adults, about 90 percent of us are able to get rid of the infection within six months. It can take up to six months for our immune systems to generate antibodies and eradicate the infection in our liver. This short-term infection is called acute hepatitis B.

To determine if you have an acute or chronic infection, you must be tested for hepatitis B over a six-month period. The specific test that indicates if you are infected is the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) test. This antigen covers the surface of the virus and usually there are lots of HBsAg in your blood when you’re infected. If you test positive for HBsAg for longer than six months, it means you have a chronic hepatitis B infection.

But, if you no longer test positive (or “reactive”) for HBsAg after six months and you develop hepatitis B surface antibodies (HBsAb), then you have cleared hepatitis B after an “acute” infection. There are some additional blood tests that your doctor may order to get a better understanding of your infection, but not everyone has access to these tests. Some tests are rather expensive and they may still need to be repeated over time in order to confirm the diagnosis. Please be patient. The good news is that hepatitis B is not typically an emergency.

Here is more good news. If you are a healthy adult and are newly or acutely infected, know that your chances are good that the hepatitis B infection will go away on its own. It is rare that you require medication to get rid of the virus, your immune system does that for you.  A person with a new hepatitis B infection may not have any symptoms, or they may not be very notable. For example, you might feel more tired. About 70 percent of people newly-infected with hepatitis B never experience symptoms.

But, some people experience severe symptoms like jaundice (yellowing skin or eyes), severe nausea or vomiting, or a bloated stomach (unrelated to your weight), and they need to see a doctor immediately. If you have a new or acute infection, even these drastic symptoms may not necessarily mean that you need any form of treatment, but you will need to be monitored with additional tests to make sure your liver is safe.

If you can’t confirm you were infected as a child, you will need to wait the six months to find out if you cleared your infection. Please be patient and do not panic, but remember you do need to take precautions during this time to make sure you don’t spread the infection to others. Practice safe sex (use a condom), and don’t share personal items that may have trace amounts of blood on them.

Also, you can suggest that your family members get screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated if needed. If you were infected at birth, there is a chance that your siblings may also be infected. Sexual partners and close household members should also be tested. There may be a nine-week period right after infection when they may not test positive for HBsAg even if they have been infected.