Sex Ed: The ABCs of Hepatitis
Hepatitis is a fancy medical word that means inflammation of the liver.
With this inflammation, or swelling, people with Hepatitis can get very sick. This column focuses on Hepatitis B, because it’s the virus that is most easily spread through sex. In northern Canada, we have higher rates of Hepatitis B than in the South. Other parts of the world such as Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe also have high rates.
How do you get it? Hepatitis B is extremely infectious — even more so than HIV — and it spreads in the same way. It can be passed from one person to the next in blood, semen, vaginal fluids and saliva. It can also pass from an infected woman to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth.
So there are lots of risky activities when it comes to Hepatitis: tattoos and piercing, sharing street drugs (straws for snorting and the more obvious risk of sharing needles for intravenous drugs or steroids) or sex with an infected person.
What happens if you get it? People infected with Hepatitis B may become jaundiced (turn yellow). This is most noticeable in the whites of the eyes, and skin may get yellow as well. The changes in the liver can affect output too — urine can turn dark like Coca-Cola, while poops start looking pale.
Appetite is often decreased, and there can be belly pain, barfing, fever, and fatigue. A very small number of people (less than one in a hundred) can get a severe initial infection and even die.
Unlike HIV, most people’s bodies manage to fight off the Hepatitis B virus when they are infected. They are still very infectious while their body fights the virus off. About one in 10 people with Hepatitis B won’t be able to get rid of it and will have it for life — they are called chronic carriers. Although they may live long lives, some will get liver cancer and cirrhosis (a shrivelled up, broken-down liver). Chronic carriers should see a doctor regularly.
Hepatitis C is another virus that affects the liver and is an enormous problem in Canada. Unlike Hepatitis B, there is no vaccine to decrease its spread. Although Hepatitis C can be spread through sex, it usually spreads from person to person through blood contact. Anyone infected with Hepatitis B or C should avoid Tylenol or alcohol. This is because both of these can do serious damage to a liver that is infected with a Hepatitis virus.
As with many STDs, a healthy-looking person can be infected and pass it on. So contact with blood, spit or sex secretions is always risky. Safer sex decisions make intimate relationships less risky — always use condoms and limit your number of partners. And do not share needles. Better yet, don’t use them at all!
The other prevention strategy is immunization. All children in Canada are immunized against Hepatitis B. In Nunavut, we do it soon after birth and this is the best time to do it.
The vaccine is given as a series of three shots and is 90 per cent effective in preventing infection. Many adults have not been immunized. If you are unsure if you have been immunized, or have questions about Hepatitis, check with your public health office or health center staff. Other sources of information include the Canadian Liver Foundation (1-800-563-5483, www.liver.ca) and www.hepnet.com.
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Want to read past Sex Ed columns? Go to www.nunatsiaq.com and click on columns. Next week: Trichomoniasis.
Madeleine Cole is a physician at the Baffin Regional Hospital.