Nigeria's foremost Online Energy News Platform

Hepatitis B: Fatal, yet Manageable Disease

By Adaobi Rhema Oguejiofor

Despite being very dangerous and highly contagious, with the advancement in medicine resulting in antiviral therapies and gene therapy research, Hepatitis B is losing its grip on patients.

Ongoing Medical research and some research breakthroughs against this once terrifying messenger of death and liver failure has rekindled hope and optimism among patients.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Hepatitis B is an infection caused by the Hepatitis B virus, which attacks the liver. The infection can be acute, short, severe, or chronic, which is long term, putting people who are infected at high risk of death from cirrhosis and liver cancer.

The disease is one from several different viruses that can infect the liver and cause inflammation, referred to as Hepatitis. It falls under a range from Hepatitis A, B, C, D, to E. Each is a little different in how they are transmitted, how they affect the body and how they are treated or prevented.

Hepatitis B can be spread by needlestick injury, tattooing, piercing, and exposure to infected blood and body fluids, such as saliva, menstrual, vaginal, and seminal fluids. Transmission of the virus may also occur through the re-use of contaminated needles, syringes or other sharp objects, either in healthcare settings or among persons who inject drugs.

However, sexual transmission is more prevalent in unvaccinated persons with multiple sexual partners. It can also be passed from a mother to her baby.

WHO noted that the infection, if acquired in adulthood, leads to chronic hepatitis in less than 5% of cases, while in infancy and early childhood, it leads to chronic Hepatitis in about 95% of cases. This is, therefore, the basis for strengthening and prioritizing infant and childhood vaccination.

The Hepatitis B virus is capable of surviving outside the body for at least 7 days, and during this time, the virus can still cause infection if it enters the body of a person who is not protected by the vaccine. The incubation period of the Hepatitis B virus ranges from 30 to 180 days. The virus may be detected within 30 to 60 days after infection and can persist and develop into chronic Hepatitis B, especially when transmitted in infancy or childhood.

In 2020, the Former Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, in company of the WHO Representative in Nigeria, Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo, announced that, about 20 million people in Nigeria are estimated to be chronically infected with Hepatitis B and C.

Most people suffering from this terrifying disease do not experience any symptoms when newly infected. Some of the symptoms include the yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, feeling very tired, nausea, vomiting and pain in the abdomen. When severe, acute Hepatitis can lead to liver failure, which can also lead to death.

Although most people will recover from acute illness, some people with chronic Hepatitis B will develop progressive liver disease and complications like cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer), which are diseases that can be fatal.

While it is generally believed that the disease has no cure yet and there is no specific treatment for acute Hepatitis B, chronic Hepatitis B can be treated with medicines. Care for acute Hepatitis B should be focused on eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea.

For chronic Hepatitis B infection, oral medicines, including Tenofovir or Entecavir can be used. The treatments can slow the advance of cirrhosis, reduce cases of liver cancer and most likely improve long term survival.

However, most people who start Hepatitis B treatment must continue it for the rest of their lives. Hepatitis B can be prevented with a safe and effective vaccine. The vaccine is usually given soon after birth, at least within 24 hours after birth, and about two or three doses of Hepatitis B vaccine at least four weeks apart.

This offers almost 100% protection against the virus, and the protection could span across at least 20 years and probably for life.

To reduce one’s risk of getting infected or spreading Hepatitis B, it is important to avoid sharing needles or any equipment used for injecting drugs, piercing, or tattooing.

Other common instructions say “wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after coming in contact with blood, body fluids, or contaminated surfaces, get a Hepatitis B vaccine if working in a healthcare setting, among others.”

A crucial point to keep in mind is that, despite its dangers, Hepatitis B is preventable. A safe and effective vaccine is available and widespread vaccination remains the best way to control the spread of the virus. In many countries, including Nigeria, the vaccine is routinely included in childhood immunization programs.

Also, treatment options for the disease exist. While there is no permanent cure, there are effective antiviral medications that can control the virus and significantly reduce the risk of complications. Early diagnosis and treatment can also dramatically improve the long-term outlook for people living with the disease.

Another good news is that research to find more solutions are ongoing. Scientists are constantly researching new treatments and even potential cures for Hepatitis B. With continued research and development, even better options for managing the disease may become available in the future. Support is also made available for people living with Hepatitis B. These patients do not have to face the disease alone, as numerous organizations and support groups offer valuable resources, information, and emotional support to help individuals cope with the diagnosis and manage their well-being.

Therefore, while Hepatitis B is a serious disease and people must get vaccinated against it as soon as possible, it is important to remember that patients living with it are not helpless. Through prevention, treatment, research, and support, patients can work towards controlling the virus and improving their lives as well.