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Can I Breastfeed While Living With Hepatitis B?

Every year, the first week of August celebrates World Breastfeeding week. World Breastfeeding week highlights the importance of breastfeeding and its benefits including nutrition, food security, child development, and the reduction of inequalities.  

Breastfeeding is a widespread practice found across cultures and borders. Considered to be the best food choice for babies, breast milk is full of essential nutrients to help babies fight off infections. It also lowers the risk of developing serious health problems like asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breastfeeding also helps the mother bond with the child and supports the baby’s emotional health. Not only that, but mothers who breastfeed reduce their risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer. It is encouraged for mothers to breastfeed their child exclusively for six months.  

However, it is important to consider that breastfeeding may not be the best option for everyone. There are many reasons why a woman may choose not to breastfeed her child including: health issues, lack of support, lack of time, short parental leave, and poor mental health. Formula can be a great, healthy, alternative to breastfeeding when breastfeeding is not possible.  

Globally, 300 million people are living with hepatitis B, and many do not know their status. Hepatitis B is a virus that infects the liver and damages healthy tissues and cells. This makes it more difficult for your liver to do its job of making sure your body is free of toxins and breaking down food so you can use it for energy. Globally, hepatitis B is most commonly transmitted from mother to child due to the blood exchange during childbirth, but may also spread through the following routes: 

  • Sharing needles or unclean objects like razors and toothbrushes 
  • Unsafe tattoo or piercing procedures 
  • Unprotected sex 

Learn more about transmission here!  

While some health issues can prevent women from breastfeeding their baby due to the fear of passing the disease or illness to their child, this is not the case with hepatitis B. Women living with hepatitis B can safely breastfeed their baby and are encouraged to breastfeed.  

Also, to prevent mother to child transmission of hepatitis B it is important to make sure the child receives the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine called the hepatitis B birth dose within the first 24 hours of birth. An extra step towards prevention can also be taken for mothers who have hepatitis B infection, which includes giving their baby the hepatitis B birth dose and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) within the first 24 hours of birth. HBIG is not always available in every country and might be difficult to get. If it is not possible to get HBIG, be sure your child gets the hepatitis B birth dose within the first 24 hours of delivery to prevent transmission. HBIG is a shot that helps to protect your baby from developing hepatitis B by teaching the body to fight off the infection. The vaccine or birth dose is safe, effective, and provides a lifetime of protection to babies, so they do not get hepatitis B in the future. The birth dose is given in 3 doses and follows the schedule below:  

  • 1st dose- given right after birth but within 24 hours 
  • 2nd dose- given in at one month of age 
  • 3rd dose- given when the baby is 6 months old 

The infant hepatitis B vaccine schedule can vary depending on where you live – you can see the schedules here. 

You can learn more about the hepatitis B vaccine here!  

It should be noted that until a baby completes their hepatitis B vaccination series, if the nipples are chapped, cracked, or bleeding, it is best to avoid breastfeeding until the nipples are completely healed. Because hepatitis B is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, there is a small risk of transmission to unvaccinated babies if the nipples are bleeding. During this time, it can be beneficial to seek guidance from a lactation consultant and switch to a different feeding method (formula or donor human milk).  

It is safe to breastfeed if you are living with hepatitis B, you will not transmit hepatitis B to your infant. If you still feel nervous about breastfeeding your baby, formula is the best alternative to breast milk.  

References 

https://worldbreastfeedingweek.org/  

https://www.hepb.org/treatment-and-management/pregnancy-and-hbv/breastfeeding/  

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23383145/  

https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/hepatitis.html#:~:text=Is%20it%20safe%20for%20a,within%2012%20hours%20of%20birth. 

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

Image courtesy of Canva

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 infect 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.

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, which 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 of hepatitis B virus 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 already protected, either due to recovery from a past hepatitis B infection, or because they had already been vaccinated.

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.

Find an earlier version of this post here