Hepatitis B is a serious viral disease that affects the liver. ‘Hepatitis’ means inflammation of the liver. While about 50 per cent of infected adults may show symptoms in the initial stage of hepatitis infection (the acute stage), young children often do not show any symptoms of the disease at all. Consequently, some people may have had hepatitis B without knowing it; however, blood tests are available to check for this.
The symptoms of acute illness resulting from hepatitis B infection may include jaundice (a yellowish discoloration of the eyes and skin), fever, nausea, vomiting, pale faeces, dark urine, a skin rash, or joint and muscle pain. There may also be pain in the upper right region of the abdomen. In a small percentage of cases, the infection may lead to progressive liver failure. However, some people experience no, or few, symptoms.
Up to 10 per cent of infected adults and 90 per cent of infected newborns may carry the virus in their system for many years without even knowing it — they themselves often have no symptoms to alert them. Such ‘carriers’ of the disease pose a health risk to others by spreading the disease, as well as significantly increasing their own risk of developing hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and primary liver cancer later in life.
It has been estimated that the carrier rate for hepatitis B in Australia is about 1 or 2 people in every thousand, although the carrier rate in some Aboriginal populations is considerably higher (1 to 5 per cent).
Hepatitis B is found in bodily fluids such as blood, saliva and semen of carriers without symptoms as well as those showing symptoms of the disease. It can be transmitted in a number of different ways, including:
The most effective way of preventing the spread of hepatitis B is through vaccination. All children are eligible for free vaccination in Australia through their GP or community health centre.
Vaccination is especially important in the following high-risk groups:
Australia has adopted the National Health and Medical Research Council’s recommendation to promote wider hepatitis B vaccination among infants and adolescents. This move is part of a long-term strategy to reduce the illness and death caused by the virus, and to ultimately eliminate it from the country.
In 1997, Australia introduced a hepatitis B vaccination programme aimed at adolescents aged 10-13 years. Subsequently, the immunisation schedule was revised to recommend that all babies born on or after 1 May 2000 be vaccinated against the disease, starting at birth.
The National Immunisation Program Schedule recommends that the first hepatitis B vaccination is given at birth. Three further doses are then administered at 2, 4, and 6 or 12 months. These are given in combination with other routine immunisations, so that no additional jabs are required. Because the immunity is long lasting, the child will not require further hepatitis B vaccination when they reach adolescence.
However, children born before 1 May 2000 should be vaccinated when they are between the ages of 10 and 13.
The most common side effects of the vaccination are soreness around the injection area, slight fever, joint pain or a feeling of being unwell. However, the risks of not immunising your child are much greater, as hepatitis B is a serious disease with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Last Reviewed: 21 October 2009