Previously we looked at hepatitis A and all the excellent reasons to get the readily-available vaccine. Now it’s time to learn about hepatitis B and C and how you can protect yourself and your partners from these two nasty strains of the disease.
You’ll remember that hepatitis A is found in contaminated feces. The hepatitis B virus is different — it thrives in semen, blood and other body fluids, which means you can catch it during unprotected sex and from contaminated items such as piercing and tattoo tools, hypodermic needles, and even an infected toothbrush or razor. If you show symptoms of infection, they will be much like those for hepatitis A: fatigue, nausea, and possibly jaundice. According to the Hepatitis B Foundation, most healthy adults will recover from a bout with the virus. But the hepatitis B story does not end there.
The problem with contracting this strain of the disease is twofold. First, it can have a relatively long incubation period, anywhere from one to six months. That means you can be carrying and passing on this disease for a very long period of time before you ever develop any symptoms of infection. Even more problematic is the fact that hepatitis B doesn’t always just go away — it can become chronic. The only way to tell the status of the disease is to chart its presence over time with blood tests. It is considered “chronic” if blood tests show the virus six months or more after infection.
Chronic hepatitis B can be extremely serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2001, approximately 78,000 people in the U.S. contracted hepatitis B and 5,000 die of illnesses attributed to the virus each year.
The Hepatitis B Foundation advises that anyone with chronic hepatitis B must be “monitored regularly by a liver specialist for early detection of disease progression since they are at increased risk for developing cirrhosis and/or liver cancer.” Although there are treatment options, chronic hepatitis B infection remains very serious and life-threatening illness.
Any sexual partner or live-in friend of someone with hepatitis B should be tested for the disease and work proactively to avoid contact with anything containing infected bodily fluids, whether or not the infection has been established as chronic. That not only means avoiding contact with fluids passed during sex, but also avoiding the sharing of such mundane items as razors.
Another serious aspect of hepatitis B is that you can become a carrier for life. The CDC estimates that one million people in the U.S. currently carry the virus and are capable of infecting others with it.
But the good news is, just like with hepatitis A, there is a vaccine available to protect you against hepatitis B. While the vaccine for hepatitis A is given in two doses, the vaccine for B is given in three. If you get both vaccines at once, you can get protection from both strains with just three shots. You should discuss vaccination options with your personal physician. Also, the Whitman-Walker Clinic provides testing for hepatitis B and can vaccinate you for both A and B. If you’re worried about the cost of the vaccines, remember that the Clinic uses a sliding scale for fees to help provide the protection for everyone who needs it.
Finally, there’s hepatitis C, a strain of the disease generally believed to be transmitted by contact with infected blood and blood products, such as during a blood transfusion or through an infected hypodermic needle. Although it is rare for hepatitis C to be spread through sexual activity, Dr. Philippe Chiliade, Medical Director of Whitman-Walker, notes that there’s a slightly higher rate of transmission amongst gay males. He considers body piercing and needle-sharing as the main sources of hepatitis C infection in the gay community since. Hepatitis C screening of the nation’s blood supply has largely eliminated the danger from blood products.
A very damaging virus, hepatitis C is a major cause of chronic liver disease in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. It accounts for about 15 percent of acute viral hepatitis, 60 to 70 percent of chronic hepatitis, and up to 50 percent of cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer. Almost 4 million Americans, or 1.8 percent of the population, are estimated to currently have or have previously been infected with the virus. In the U.S. alone, Hepatitis C causes approximately 10,000 to 12,000 deaths annually.
Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. Although transmission through sex is unlikely, the CDC reports that use of latex condoms may provide some protection. Your best bet? Never share needles, piercing or tattooing equipment.
If you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s a good idea get yourself vaccinated without delay (the CDC advises all gay men to get the B vaccine), and if you find you’ve been infected get the treatment you need to protect yourself and your partners.