Learn more about Hepatitis B and how you can protect yourself and others when you travel. We explain how you get the disease, the symptoms and how you can prevent the disease.
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that can infect your liver causing not only acute illness but also long-lasting damage. Globally Hepatitis B presents a massive challenge with cases found on nearly every continent. Figures from the World Health Organisation in 2019 put global cases at around 296 Million with an estimated 820,000 deaths from liver damage and liver cancer. The majority of cases are located in the WHO Western Pacific and African regions.
Unlike Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B causes chronic, long-lasting damage with no specific treatments other than anti-viral agents to slow the progression of the disease and prevent liver damage. Infection with hepatitis B is more severe in children with approximately 95% of cases causing significant long-term liver problems. Infection as an adult leads to chronic hepatitis in only 5% of individuals.
Most individuals do not experience any symptoms when newly infected, however, some people can develop jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, nausea and abdominal pains. This can lead to liver failure and eventually death. Long-term individuals who carry the virus are at risk of chronic liver damage and liver cancers.
Hepatitis B is a virus spread through blood and other bodily fluids. In the UK Hepatitis B is typically found in communities that use injectable drugs as well as unvaccinated individuals with multiple sexual partners.
In developing nations, Hepatitis B is primarily transferred from mother to baby at birth, and between infected and uninfected children under 5 years old.
Fact. Did you know that Hepatitis B can live on surfaces outside of the body for up to 7 days! Even at 7 days outside the body, the virus is still very capable of causing infections.
I bet you are thinking that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll come across Hepatitis B as a traveller? Well read on to find out why travellers are at risk of Hepatitis B.
You’re probably reading this page because you are looking for Travel Vaccines at a Peak Pharmacy Travel Clinic, equally, you might also be looking at viral Hepatitis protection due to occupational risk.
As a traveller, your risk of contracting Hepatitis B is relatively low. Whilst some individuals will travel for medical procedures or sex tourism the majority of individuals who contract Hepatitis B whilst abroad will acquire the disease through an unplanned trip to the hospital and a blood transfusion. Accidents whilst on holiday are common, and most commonly these are road traffic accidents.
Some of the more unusual cases of hepatitis B transmission have occurred through sharing (or unintended sharing) of toothbrushes as well as razor sharing which was once commonplace on the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia; Thankfully you now have to provide your own razor!
Occupational risk is a significant hazard, even in the UK. Typically occupational hazards arise through needlestick injury and certain professions like healthcare are particularly risky.
As a traveller the risk of infection is low but you can reduce your risk if you are a higher-risk traveller:
The best method of Hepatitis B prevention is through pre-exposure vaccination.
Vaccination against Hepatitis B is safe and effective and in 2017 was introduced into the UK childhood immunisation schedule.
The Hepatitis B vaccine is indicated for all age groups, including newborns. A course consists of 3 doses usually administered over 6 months, however, there are faster schedules available for adult travellers. The fastest schedule is only 3 weeks long.
Once a course is complete booster doses are not usually required however, a single dose could be considered 5 years after completing the primary course for individuals at high risk. Individuals at occupational risk may periodically need blood tests to prove immunity.
As mentioned earlier Hepatitis B vaccines are safe and effective; adverse events are infrequent. All licenced vaccines in the UK which include Engerix B and HB-Vax Pro are inactivated vaccines. This means they cannot cause the disease that we are attempting to protect you against. In this respect, they are just like the flu vaccine which should also be considered a travel vaccine depending on the season you are travelling. Typical adverse events are usually limited to:
These symptoms will usually resolve within a few days and require only paracetamol or a cold compress (if swelling at the injection site) to manage them.
No …… not usually. Hepatitis B vaccines are not offered for free on the NHS for travellers. On occasion, your GP may provide it for free if you also require vaccination against Hepatitis A. Typically your GP will use a combined Hepatitis A and B vaccine-like Twinrix, but this is only suitable for patients who have never received Hepatitis A vaccination previously.
If you are fortunate enough to receive Twinrix, only your GP surgery can provide the vaccine free of charge, not all surgeries provide travel services and you often need to give your surgery 8 weeks’ notice to get an appointment.