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Preventing Hepatitis B

  Many people do not take advantage of an effective vaccination that is available to protect against a potentially life-threatening virus, hepatitis B.

  Hepatitis B vaccinations have been given regularly to babies since late 1992. Those born before 1992 did not receive the vaccination.

“Hepatitis B is much more likely to be transmitted after an exposure than is the virus that causes AIDS, and hepatitis B is the world’s leading known cause of liver cancer,” says Claire Pomeroy, M.D., chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. Along with liver cancer, the virus can result in cirrhosis of the liver.

  About one in every three people infected does not know he or she has hepatitis B because there may be no symptoms. Some people, however, do show signs such as loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, upper right abdominal pain, fever, headache, brownish urine, light-gray stools, and jaundice.

  About 10 percent of newly infected people become chronic carriers of hepatitis. Of the chronic hepatitis carriers, 20 percent develop fatal complications with cirrhosis and 6 percent develop fatal hepatoma, a cancer that begins in liver cells.

  About 300,000 Americans are infected annually with hepatitis B; three out of four people infected are between the ages of 15 and 39. These cases can be prevented easily with a series of three injections of a vaccine that should provide lifelong immunity. After the initial injection, the vaccine is administered again after one month and a third time after six months. People who are allergic to yeast should not be vaccinated. Side effects are mild and consist of soreness, redness, or slight swelling at the injection site.

  Hepatitis B can be spread many ways: through sexual contact; sharing an infected person’s toothbrush, razor, or earrings; needlesticks; cuts and scrapes during contact sports; and by piercing and tattooing. In fact, the virus can stay alive on contaminated surfaces up to a month.

  “Any activity that involves contact with bodily fluids puts you at risk for hepatitis B,” Pomeroy says. “In fact, you are more likely to contract hepatitis B than AIDS if exposed to another person’s bodily fluids.”

  Pomeroy urges parents to have their children vaccinated before they enter junior high and high school.

  “It’s hard for parents to think of their 12- and 13-year-olds taking part in risky behaviors,” Pomeroy says. “But parents want to protect their children, and the vaccination is a way to protect your child against a serious illness.”

  However, young people are not the only ones who should be vaccinated. Anyone can be at risk. 

  “People do other things to try to prevent cancer. Why not be vaccinated for hepatitis B? It is a proven way to help prevent liver cancer,” says Pomeroy.

Where can I get hepatitis B vaccinations?

  Contact your doctor or local health department or center for hepatitis B vaccinations. Most insurance programs will cover all or at least most of the cost for hepatitis B vaccinations, but you should check beforehand. If you do not have insurance or insurance does not cover the cost of the vaccinations, contact your local health department for prices on adult vaccinations and the Vaccinations for Children program, which offers special prices for those age 19 and under.

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