Hep B Spread The
Same As HIV But '100 Times'
More Communicable
By Marian Jones

NEW YORK - Hepatitis infects up to 320,000 Americans annually. Hepatitis B is so infectious that someone can get it from a recently used toothbrush if the bristles contain blood from the infected person's gums. (and WET KISSING - ed)
It's also easy to get from sex, tattoo and body piercing tools, a bite from an infected person and contaminated needles, according to the Hepatitis Foundation International.
"Like HIV, hepatitis B is spread primarily through blood and body fluids, but it's 100 times more communicable," said Dr. Martin Levy, chief epidemiologist for Preventative Health Services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Hepatitis Foundation International on Monday hosted a National Hepatitis Congress and Walk on Washington to raise awareness in Congress about hepatitis and the importance of vaccination for hepatitis A and B. The walk was followed by a press conference and a meeting among hepatitis advocates and congressional representatives.
"We're trying to bring hepatitis B under control through prevention, education, and vaccination, and trying to increase the amount of resources to find effective treatments for hepatitis," said Thelma Thiel, CEO of the Hepatitis Foundation International.
There is a highly effective vaccine to protect against this viral disease, which infects up to 320,000 Americans every year. Hepatitis can cause serious liver damage and leads to 6,000 U.S. deaths from cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is also a vaccine for hepatitis A, which can be transmitted through food and feces and leads to a short-term liver infection.
No vaccine currently exists for hepatitis C, the most serious and least communicable of these diseases.
Yet a large proportion of the adult population is still not vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, and many have not taken one of the many tests available to detect all three forms of the disease, the HFI said.
Hepatitis C: A Chronic Condition
The Washington event also served as an opportunity for people who are already infected with hepatitis C to learn more about their disease, and to become vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, which can be life-threatening in this group, according to Thiel.
Currently, 2.7 million Americans are chronically infected with hepatitis C, and there are 1.2 million carriers of hepatitis B, according to the CDC. Being a carrier means you can transmit the disease to someone else, even if you show no signs of infection.
While hepatitis A does not lead to chronic infection, and only 6 to 10 percent of people who catch hepatitis B become chronically infected, hepatitis C becomes a chronic condition in 80 percent of people who are infected, and often leads to liver disease, CDC statistics indicate.
"We need a vaccine for hepatitis C, " said Levy. "It's the main cause of liver transplants."
Unlike hepatitis B, hepatitis C is not as easily spread through sex. But it is spread through blood, and people who had a blood transfusion before 1992 or a transfusion of blood products before 1987 are at risk for getting it and should be tested, according to the CDC. Donated blood was not screened effectively for this virus until these dates.
Major Vaccine Campaign
At the end of 1991, the federal government launched a major hepatitis B vaccination campaign, and since 1992 has required all infants to be immunized against the disease. Now, the CDC recommends that all children under 18 be immunized.
Any child who is eligible for Medicaid can get a free vaccination under the government's Vaccines for Children campaign, according Dr. Hal Jenson, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
Many state health departments also vaccinate children in schools, Levy said. "Ideally, we would want to immunize all of the kids through college age, because as they get older, they are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for hepatitis B," he said. But not all state health departments have the funds to conduct universal vaccination programs.
Vaccine Concerns
Part of the problem is the vaccine itself, which is expensive and must be given in three doses.
A new two-dose regimen has just become available for adolescents, according to Jenson, but "my preference," he said, "is still the three-dose regimen."
Some parents have feared getting their infants and children vaccinated, because a French report released in 1994 found an association with the hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis.
But that report has not been confirmed by any scientific studies, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"A study by the French National Drug Surveillance Committee among recipients of over 60 million doses of hepatitis B vaccine delivered between 1989 and 1997 found that the frequency of neurological disease, including MS, that might be linked to the vaccination was in fact LOWER than the frequency of MS in the general population," the MS society stated in a 1998 press release.
The hepatitis B vaccine can cause a very rare allergic reaction, and at least six research projects are currently under way to examine any possible link between the hepatitis B vaccine and MS, according to the CDC.
"There are always possible dangers" with a vaccine, Jenson admitted. "But the risk of getting the disease and the complications of the disease are much greater than any of the rare complications seen with vaccination."


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