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Hepatitis B is NOT A Genetic Disease – And Here’s Why

There are many misconceptions about the hepatitis B virus. One recurring one is the myth that hepatitis B is a genetic or hereditary disease. The belief is that because multiple family members can be infected by hepatitis B, it must be a virus that runs in families. This is not true. Hepatitis B is NOT genetic. Hepatitis B is spread through direct contact with infected blood. Although transmission can occur a number of different ways, it does not happen at conception or while the child is developing in the uterus. 

Let’s start by breaking down what it means for something to be genetic or hereditary: 

A genetic disease is caused by an error in a person’s genes and is   carried by an individual in their genes. This type of disease may be passed on to a person’s child (which means it is hereditary) or it can occur spontaneously as a result of a gene mutation while a child is growing in the womb. Genes – which make up each of our unique DNA strands – are passed on to a child from both the mother and the father. Therefore, if a mother or father carries a certain hereditary disease or genetic trait, such as brown hair or green eyes, the child has the ability to have that as well. 

Hepatitis B is not a genetic disease because it does not exist in a person’s genes. It is not carried in the egg of a woman or the sperm of a man. The hepatitis B virus exists in the liver cells and circulates in the bloodstream. Unlike a genetic disease, a person is not born with the hepatitis B virus already in their bodies. Instead, the virus is passed from mother to baby during childbirth through infected blood passing from the mother to the child during the physical delivery process. If a pregnant woman tests positive for hepatitis B, she can pass the virus to her newborn through infected blood and tiny tears in the skin that occur during childbirth. Oftentimes, these tears are unable to be seen by the human eye but can still allow for the virus to pass through and make direct contact with mucous membranes (“wet skin”) of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of the infant

A number of different factors play a role in determining if a newborn will contract hepatitis B from their mother: the mother’s viral load levels, the mother’s knowledge of her infection, and if the newborn receives post-exposure prophylaxis. Post-exposure prophylaxis is the key to preventing mother-to-child transmission and consists of two parts: the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG). Both shots need to be administered 1) in two different limbs and 2) within 12 hours of birth in order to be as effective as possible. Once the shots have been given, the infant should complete the standard hepatitis B vaccine schedule in order to ensure that they are protected for life! *Please note that HBIG is not recommended by WHO, so it may not be recommended or available in all countries.

Commonly Asked Questions: 

It can be difficult to understand facts when they do not align with what you have been told for many years, so we’ve answered some of the most common responses to our information below: 

  1.  If it is not genetic, how is it sexually transmitted? 

 This question goes back to the topic of genes. A genetic disease differs from a sexually transmitted disease because of where the virus is hosted during transmission from one individual to another. A genetic disease is given to a person via cellular DNA while a baby is developing in the mother’s womb. Sexual transmission occurs because the virus is present in blood and sexual fluids and can be transmitted through very tiny, microscopic tears as a result of sexual intercourse.

2.  If it’s not genetic, why do multiple members of my family have it? 

Families tend to share objects – and that’s okay! However, sharp objects like earrings and body jewelry or personal care items like razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes, can make tiny, microscopic cuts and abrasions in our skin that bleed. Sometimes, we don’t even notice! When a family member uses an object with trace amounts of infected blood and they also have a wound, such as a mouth sore,  cut, or freshly shaved skin, the virus can spread to the uninfected individual. Because hepatitis B is so infectious (at least 50 times more infectious than HIV!), even small amounts of infected blood can cause a person to become infected. Therefore, it is recommended that personal items and sharp objects are not shared – even between family members, or ensure all family members are properly vaccinated for hepatitis B and confirm they are protected

Accidents also occur frequently in households, and sometimes blood is spilled. The virus can live on surfaces outside of the body, so it is essential to properly clean up any blood spills. The key to safely cleaning up blood and killing the virus is to wear gloves and use a fresh diluted bleach solution of 1 part bleach mixed with 9 parts water. 

It’s extremely important to note that infected blood must come into contact with uninfected blood or a mucous membrane for transmission to occur. A person cannot become infected from skin-to-skin contact such as shaking hands or hugging, sharing utensils or food prepared by an infected individual, or even kissing.

Prevention: 

The best thing to remember is that hepatitis B is preventable, even if a child is born to a mother living with chronic hepatitis B! Always remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after any possible exposure to blood. In addition, any family members and loved ones who test negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and did not recover from a past infection (HBcAb total negative) should get vaccinated to prevent any possible transmission. The vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines in the world! 

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

Courtesy of Google Images

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!

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

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"