What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a vaccine preventable disease of the liver and leading cause of liver cancer worldwide caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Symptoms associated with the initial HBV infection, also called acute infection, could be so mild that many people including their doctors may not know they have been infected. But in some, it could result in an illness with symptoms of fatigue, lost of appetite, dark urine and yellow discoloration of the eyes, lasting for several months and even death from liver failure. Those who fail to clear the infection will develop lifelong, chronic hepatitis B infection that can lead to premature death from cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, or liver cancer. Approximately 1 in 30 people worldwide (approximately 296 million people) were living with chronic hepatitis B which causes over 60% of liver cancer cases worldwide. Without appropriate medical management, as many as 1 in 4 people chronically infected with HBV will die from liver cancer or liver failure, resulting in 820,000 deaths in 2019.

Asians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately affected by chronic hepatitis B

In the United States, 1 in 12 Asian Americans is chronically infected with hepatitis B in comparison to 1 in 1000 non-Hispanic Whites. While Asian Americans constitute only 6% of the population in the United States, they comprise over half of the nation’s 860,000 to 2.4 million million people chronically infected with hepatitis B. This is one of the greatest racial health disparities in the United States.

Fortunately, hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable disease. A safe and effective vaccine has been available since 1982. Click here to read more about the vaccine.

Chronic hepatitis B is a silent killer.

Chronic hepatitis B is dangerous because there are often no symptoms, and blood tests for liver enzymes may be normal. By the time symptoms such as abdominal pain and/or abdominal distension appear, it is often too late for treatment to be effective. Therefore, it is very important to get screened to see if you are chronically infected. Although there is currently no curative treatment for chronic hepatitis B, there are highly effective antiviral therapy as simple as a pill a day for patients with liver damage to prevent disease progression and to reduce the risk of liver cancer. Click here to read more about HBV screening.

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Birth - HBV can be transmitted from a chronically infected mother to her child during the birthing process. This is one of the most common modes of transmission for Asians. Many pregnant mothers with chronic hepatitis B are unaware of their infection and end up silently passing the virus to the next generation.

Blood - HBV can be transmitted through direct contact with infected blood. This includes:

  • Wound-to-wound contact
  • Reusing or sharing needles for tattoos, piercings, acupuncture, or injection drugs
  • Reusing syringes or medical devices
  • Sharing razors or toothbrushes contaminated by blood
  • Blood transfusions

Sex - HBV can be transmitted through unprotected sex with a person infected with HBV. The use of condoms can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of infection. Vaccination remains the most effective way to protect against HBV.

HBV is NOT transmitted through food or water. It is not spread through:

  • Sharing food or water
  • Sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
  • Tears, sweat, urine, or stool
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Hugging or kissing
  • Breastfeeding
  • Mosquitoes