How do you get hepatitis B? How can I protect myself?

Online Q&A
Reviewed June 2013

Q: How do you get hepatitis B? How can I protect myself?

A: Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). The virus interferes with the functions of the liver and activates the immune system, which produces a specific reaction to combat the virus. As a consequence of pathological damage, the liver becomes inflamed. A small percentage of infected people cannot get rid of the virus and become chronically infected – these people are at high risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

Hepatitis B virus is transmitted by contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person – the same way as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, HBV is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.

The main ways of getting infected with HBV are:

  • perinatal (from mother to baby at the birth)
  • child-to-child transmission
  • unsafe injections and transfusions
  • sexual contact.

Worldwide, most infections occur from mother-to-child, from child-to-child (especially in household settings), and from reuse of unsterilized needles and syringes. Before the widespread use of the hepatitis B vaccine, almost all children in developing countries used to become infected with the virus.

You can protect yourself against hepatitis B by being vaccinated. The hepatitis B vaccine has an outstanding record of safety and effectiveness, and since 1982, over one billion doses have been used worldwide. The vaccine is 95% effective in preventing chronic infections from developing. Protection lasts for 20 years at least, no booster is recommended by WHO as of today.

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