The Hepatitis B virus (HBV) can cause acute and chronic liver infections. It is transmitted through infected blood products, unprotected sex, infected items such as needles, razor blades, dental or medical equipment, unscreened blood transfusions, or from mother to child at birth.
The virus is present worldwide, but some populations in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, as well as in indigenous communities are Hepatitis B carriers. Travellers getting tattoos or piercings abroad, using drugs intravenously, sharing needles and razor blades, undergoing dental or medical procedures, or having unprotected sex are at risk.
In many cases, the infection is asymptomatic – persons do not exhibit symptoms. Those with symptoms usually get ill 30 days to 6 months after exposure to the virus. Symptoms include fatigue, malaise, nausea, abdominal pain, dark urine, and jaundice. The illness can last several weeks and some adults can become chronic carriers after being infected. Hepatitis B can cause chronic liver infections, cirrhosis of the liver, or liver cancer. Most infections are asymptomatic in children under five years of age but they can become chronic carriers. Many countries are now including vaccination against Hepatitis B in their childhood vaccination schedules. Treatment includes supportive care of symptoms. Some cases of chronic Hepatitis B can be treated with antiviral drugs.
Hepatitis B vaccination is a routine immunization. If you have not been vaccinated, it is recommended for travellers on work assignments in the healthcare field such as physicians, nurses, laboratory technicians, dentists, or for those working in close contact with the local population such as teachers, aid workers, and missionaries.
There are two inactivated vaccines available in the Canada and the USA, including a combined Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B vaccine. Both types of vaccines confer long-term protection and can be given in accelerated schedules. Discuss your options with your healthcare provider if you cannot finish the series prior to your departure.
Information last updated: January 2020