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Travel health information for people travelling abroad from the UK

Hepatitis B

Introduction

Hepatitis B is an acute infection of the liver. It is usually spread through contaminated blood via sexual intercourse, needle sharing, blood transfusions and injections. The virus can also be passed from mother to baby. Tattooing, body piercing and acupuncture are other ways in which the virus may be spread.

Hepatitis B is a public health problem worldwide. Areas where there is a higher risk of exposure to hepatitis B include Africa, India, China, South and Central America and Southeast Asia.

The Illness

The illness in all forms of hepatitis is similar, however, infection with hepatitis B is more serious than hepatitis A. Symptoms include mild fever, gastrointestinal upset, nausea/vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Jaundice may also occur.

The illness lasts for about six months. Occasionally, the virus can persist for more than six months in individuals who become chronically infected with hepatitis B. These individuals may be referred to as carriers. Up to a quarter of individuals who are carriers have progressive liver disease which can cause cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.

Treatment

  • Acute illness is treated symptomatically with a careful watch for early signs of liver failure.
  • Chronic infection may require treatment with either interferon or oral antivirals to reduce the long term risk of cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.

Recommendations for Travellers

Travellers at risk should consider vaccination. This includes those who will be visiting areas where there is high risk of exposure to the virus. There are several brands of vaccine available to protect against hepatitis B: Engerix B, Engerix B Paediatric, Fendrix, HBvaxPro 05, HBvaxPro 10 and HBvaxPro 40.

Hepatitis B vaccine is also available in a preparation that combines it with hepatitis A vaccine for convenience: Ambirix, Twinrix and Twinrix Paediatric.

Individuals should avoid risky behaviour e.g. unprotected sex, tattoos, piercings, visiting traditional barbers in high risk destinations. Dental and surgical procedures should also be avoided in high risk areas.

Combined vaccine preparations PILs

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