Most adults who are infected with the hepatitis B virus completely recover from the infection and develop immunity to the virus. But some people (usually infants and young children) are unable to clear the virus from their bodies, and develop a chronic, or long-term, infection.
Of the 350 million people worldwide who are chronically infected with hepatitis B, many live in the Asia-Pacific region. In Australia, it is estimated that 90,000 to 160,000 people have chronic hepatitis B infection. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there are higher rates of chronic hepatitis B infection.
Chronic hepatitis B infection can result in complications such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. Experts in liver disease have found that the amount of hepatitis B virus in the blood — known as the viral load — helps determine the likelihood of developing these complications. Higher viral loads are associated with an increased risk of developing cirrhosis and cancer of the liver, so keeping the viral load as low as possible can help reduce or prevent injury to the liver.
Medications such as pegylated interferon and also direct antivirals such as entecavir, lamivudine and adefovir have become an important aspect of treatment for chronic hepatitis B, because they can stop the hepatitis B virus from replicating in your cells and reduce the amount of hepatitis B virus in the blood. These antiviral medications can stop the progression of liver disease and prevent liver cancer.
There are many people currently living with chronic hepatitis B who are not being treated and face an increased risk of complications and death from their disease. If you have chronic hepatitis B infection, see your doctor, who can advise you on whether one of these antiviral treatments may be suitable for you.
Also, it's important to remember that hepatitis B is a contagious disease. If you have chronic hepatitis B, you should make sure that anyone you are in close contact with is vaccinated against the disease. The hepatitis B vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule.
Last Reviewed: 22 August 2008