IT has often been called the hidden epidemic, because it's rarely the focus of health campaigns and its symptoms are generally not as obvious. But the impact of Hepatitis B cannot be underestimated, because if left untreated, it can prove to be fatal.
"Everybody knows about HIV/AIDS and syphilis and gonorrhoea and those things, but you don't find people talking about this disease," said gynaecologist/obstetrician Dr Michael Abrahams.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis virus and has millions of carriers worldwide. The World Health Organisation has declared it a major global health problem because it puts people at risk for liver cancer and death. The disease can be transmitted through contact with the blood or fluid of an infected person during sexual intercourse. It can be spread by vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex and by sharing personal items that may have blood or bodily fluids. It can therefore be passed on while using an infected needle to get a tattoo, a body piercing or for drug use.
The disease can also be transferred through a blood transfusion while undergoing a dialysis for kidney disease. Doctors have always warned that pregnant mothers be screened for the disease before giving birth.
"If a woman has it and she gives birth, she can pass it on to her baby," Dr Abrahams said.
Hepatitis B is not a genetic disease and cannot be spread from hugging, holding hands, breastfeeding or sharing meals or utensils with a carrier, but so as to protect babies against it, most countries offer some form of vaccination.
You may get infected with Hepatitis B and not know, because it's asymptomatic. Some persons won't become aware of it until they are undergoing a routine blood test or while giving blood. Symptoms of Hepatitis B generally include loss of appetite, dark urine or light-coloured stool, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain in muscles and joints and abdominal discomfort.
Treatment for Hepatitis B would depend on whether it is chronic or acute. The acute form of the infection generally lasts for just a few months; however, a small percentage of persons suffer from a chronic form of the disease which damages the liver. Drug treatment is therefore generally offered to these individuals, so as to assist in the reduction of viral replication in the liver.