Pregnant women should be routinely tested to stop them from passing the Hepatitis B virus to their newborn, say experts. A study of 16,000 births over three years at Sucheta Kriplani Hospital showed that children born to mothers with Hepatitis B infection have a 90 per cent chance of being born infected.
“Hepatitis B infection is often missed as neither the mother nor the newborn are routinely tested for it. Testing would ensure that babies born to Hepatitis B-infected mothers are given a Hepatitis B immunoglobulins (antibodies found in the blood) and vaccine within 12 hours after birth to help fight the infection,” says Dr S.K. Sarin, head of the department of gastroenterology, G.B. Pant Hospital. Babies given both have a less than 5 per cent chance of remaining infected with Hepatitis B.
The Hepatitis B vaccine given through three shots is 95 per cent effective in preventing children and adults from developing chronic infection if they have not yet been infected. While vaccination against Hepatitis B has been a part of routine immunization in Delhi since 2001, most adults don’t bother to get vaccinated.
"The vaccine is recommended for everyone irrespective of age because you never know when you can be exposed to unsafe blood or body fluids through blood transfusion, injections, ear-piercing or unprotected sex,” says Dr Anil Arora, head of the department of haepatology at Gangra Ram Hospital.
In India, about 3-4 per cent adults are carriers who may not develop symptoms. Some, however, develop chronic infection and have a 20 per cent chance of developing severe illness, liver cancer and liver failure.
Diagnosis sometimes happens late because the symptoms may be mild or absent. “Symptoms usually appear six weeks to six months after exposure and include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin), lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, tiredness, darkened urine, pale stools and fever,” says Dr Sarin.
Both oral and injectable medicines are used to treat of chronic Hepatitis B, but interferon injections given over four to six months is the most common mode of treatment. “Only 15 per cent people with Hepatitis B are eligible for treatment as it is effective only in people with low viral load and high immune response,” says Dr Arora.