Hepatitis B can be prevented

The theme of this year's World Hepatitis Day on July 28 was 'It's closer than you think.' With about one million people worldwide dying due to hepatitis - and millions suffering immediate sickness or developing chronic illness - the theme reflects the lurking dangers of the disease.

According to the WHO, worldwide around two billion people are infected with the Hepatitis B virus and 6,00,000 die each year due to its consequences. In India, approximately 80 million people harbour the hepatitis B virus, which results in around 2,40,000 deaths annually due to complications from the disease.

Among the deadliest variants of hepatitis, which includes A, B, C, D and E types, given its propensity for periodic outbreaks in India, hepatitis B poses the greatest danger. Essentially an inflammation of the liver, hepatitis is usually caused by a viral infection. hepatitis B leads to a large number of deaths due to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Yet, many of the fatalities caused by hepatitis B need not occur if every child is given three doses of vaccines.

A person initially infected with hepatitis B is said to have an 'acute' infection. The immune mechanism of most patients successfully eliminates the virus, curing them of hepatitis. An acute attack is usually brief but can be transmitted to other people during the period that the virus resides in the patient's body. Such people may exhibit no symptoms, or may only display some symptoms, such as jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes), dark yellowish urine, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and extreme fatigue.

Some patients are, however, unable to get rid of the virus, which causes 'chronic' infection that gradually damages the liver over the years and generally lasts life-long. People with chronic HEP B could stay symptom-free for years or decades. Only when serious liver damage occurs will there be signs of severe disease, such as cirrhosis or liver failure. By this time, though, it may be too late to manage the disease successfully.

A blood-borne disease, HEP B is hundred times more infectious than HIV, mainly transmitted by exposure to an infected individual's blood, semen, saliva, vaginal discharge or breast milk. Besides these, unsafe injection practices pose the greatest threat in India, particularly from reuse of infected needles. According to WHO statistics, around 12 to 16 billion injections are administered each year globally. In developing nations, including India, almost 50% of such injections may be unsafe because of improper sterilization, repeat usage of single-use needles and syringes, inappropriate administration techniques and hazardous means of disposal. Such risky practices expose patients, physicians and the public to the dangers of contracting the deadly Hepatitis virus. It is important to note that HEP B is not transmitted via food, water or casual contact such as touching or hugging.

HEP B is also spread by infected mothers to their babies during birth. Such transmissions to newborns can be prevalent in areas where HEP B rates are high. Almost all infected infants may develop chronic HEP B. The disease can also be transmitted via blood transfusions.

Dr Samir Shah, liver specialist, Jaslok and Breach Candy Hospitals, said, "The Government of India has made Hepatitis B Vaccine available now for all babies in Universal Vaccination Programme across the country. We should make the Hepatitis B vaccination story a success in the same lines as the pulse polio program and make the next generation Hepatitis B free".

Other precautions to prevent the spread of HEP B from infected individuals include:

Covering all cuts.

Not sharing razors, toothbrushes, earrings, etc.

Always using condoms during sex

Vaccinating babies born to infected women in the delivery room or within 12 hours of birth.

Having all family members tested for HEP B and administered the HEP B vaccine, which ensures protection for life.

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