Hepatitis B is a disease caused by HBV hepatitis B virus which infects the liver of hominoidae, including humans, and causes an inflammation called hepatitis. Originally known as “serum hepatitis”, the disease has caused epidemics in parts of Asia and Africa, and it is endemic in China. About a third of the world’s population, more than 2 billion people, have been infected with the hepatitis B virus. This includes 350 million chronic carriers of the virus. Transmission of hepatitis B virus results from exposure to infectious blood or body fluids containing blood.
The acute illness causes liver inflammation, vomiting, jaundice and—rarely—death. Chronic hepatitis B may eventually cause liver cirrhosis and liver cancer—a fatal disease with very poor response to current chemotherapy. The infection is preventable by vaccination.
Hepatitis B virus is an hepadnavirus—hepa from hepatotrophic and dna because it is a DNA virus—and it has a circular genome composed of partially double-stranded DNA. The viruses replicate through an RNA intermediate form by reverse transcription, and in this respect they are similar to retroviruses. Although replication takes place in the liver, the virus spreads to the blood where virus-specific proteins and their corresponding antibodies are found in infected people. Blood tests for these proteins and antibodies are used to diagnose the infection.
Prevention of Hepatitis B
Several vaccines have been developed for the prevention of hepatitis B virus infection. These rely on the use of one of the viral envelope proteins (hepatitis B surface antigen or HBsAg). The vaccine was originally prepared from plasma obtained from patients who had long-standing hepatitis B virus infection. However, currently, these are more often made using recombinant DNA technology, though plasma-derived vaccines continue to be used; the two types of vaccines are equally effective and safe.
Following vaccination Hepatitis B Surface antigen may be detected in serum for several days; this is known as vaccine antigenaemia. Vaccine is generally administered in either a two, three, or four dose schedules; and can be received by infants to adults. It provides protection for 85-90% of individuals, and lasts for 23 years.
Unlike Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B does not generally spread through water and food. Instead, it is transmitted through body fluids, from which prevention is taken to avoid: unprotected sexual contact, blood transfusions, re-use of contaminated needles and syringes, and vertical transmission during child birth. Infants may be vaccinated at birth.
Symptoms of Hepatitis B
Acute infection with hepatitis B virus is associated with acute viral hepatitis – an illness that begins with general ill-health, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, body aches, mild fever, dark urine, and then progresses to development of jaundice. It has been noted that itchy skin has been an indication as a possible symptom of all hepatitis virus types. The illness lasts for a few weeks and then gradually improves in most affected people. A few patients may have more severe liver disease (fulminant hepatic failure), and may die as a result of it. The infection may be entirely asymptomatic and may go unrecognized.
Chronic infection with Hepatitis B virus may be either asymptomatic or may be associated with a chronic inflammation of the liver (chronic hepatitis), leading to cirrhosis over a period of several years. This type of infection dramatically increases the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer). Chronic carriers are encouraged to avoid consuming alcohol as it increases their risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B virus has been linked to the development of Membranous glomerulonephritis (MGN).
Transmission of Hepatitis B
Transmission of hepatitis B virus results from exposure to infectious blood or body fluids containing blood. Possible forms of transmission include (but are not limited to) unprotected sexual contact, blood transfusions, re-use of contaminated needles & syringes, and vertical transmission from mother to child during childbirth. Without intervention, a mother who is positive for HBsAg confers a 20% risk of passing the infection to her offspring at the time of birth. This risk is as high as 90% if the mother is also positive for HBeAg. HBV can be transmitted between family members within households, possibly by contact of nonintact skin or mucous membrane with secretions or saliva containing HBV. However, at least 30% of reported hepatitis B among adults cannot be associated with an identifiable risk factor.
Hepatitis B Prevalence
The primary method of transmission reflects the prevalence of chronic HBV infection in a given area. In low prevalence areas such as the continental United States and Western Europe, where less than 2% of the population is chronically infected, injection drug abuse and unprotected sex are the primary methods, although other factors may be important. In moderate prevalence areas, which include Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan, where 2-7% of the population is chronically infected, the disease is predominantly spread among children. In high prevalence areas such as China and South East Asia, transmission during childbirth is most common, although in other areas of high endemicity such as Africa, transmission during childhood is a significant factor. The prevalence of chronic HBV infection in areas of high endemicity is at least 8%.
Treatment of Hepatitis B
Acute hepatitis B infection does not usually require treatment because most adults clear the infection spontaneously. Early antiviral treatment may only be required in fewer than 1% of patients, whose infection takes a very aggressive course (“fulminant hepatitis”) or who are immunocompromised. On the other hand, treatment of chronic infection may be necessary to reduce the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. Chronically infected individuals with persistently elevated serum alanine aminotransferase, a marker of liver damage, and HBV DNA levels are candidates for therapy.
Although none of the available drugs can clear the infection, they can stop the virus from replicating, and minimize liver damage such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Currently, there are seven medications licensed for treatment of hepatitis B infection in the United States. These include antiviral drugs lamivudine (Epivir), adefovir (Hepsera), tenofovir (Viread), telbivudine (Tyzeka) and entecavir (Baraclude) and the two immune system modulators interferon alpha-2a and pegylated interferon alfa-2a (Pegasys). The use of interferon, which requires injections daily or thrice weekly, has been supplanted by long-acting pegylated interferon, which is injected only once weekly. However, some individuals are much more likely to respond than others and this might be because of the genotype of the infecting virus or the patient’s heredity. The treatment works by reducing the viral load, (the amount of virus particles as measured in the blood), which in turn reduces viral replication in the liver.
Infants born to mothers known to carry hepatitis B can be treated with antibodies to the hepatitis B virus (hepatitis B immune globulin or HBIg). When given with the vaccine within twelve hours of birth, the risk of acquiring hepatitis B is reduced 95%. This treatment allows a mother to safely breastfeed her child.