Why Pregnant Women are Tested for Hepatitis B
How Hepatitis B Spreads
Hepatitis B is a liver disease that can be mild, lasting a few weeks, or it can be chronic, resulting in a lifelong, contagious, and serious illness where the hepatitis B virus (HBV) remains in a person's body. This can potentially lead to a number of liver diseases, liver cancer, and even premature death.
Hepatitis B is spread when HBV-infected body fluids such as blood and semen enter the body of an uninfected individual. One can be exposed to the virus without knowing it due to the fact that most people with chronic HBV infection have no symptoms - they don't look or feel sick. However, they can still spread the disease to others.
Some of the ways by which hepatitis B is spread include:
- Sex with an infected partner
- Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment
- Childbirth (infected mother spreads the virus to her baby)
- Contact with open sores or blood of an infected person
- Sharing personal toiletries with an infected person (i.e. toothbrush or razor)
Pregnant Women and Hepatitis B Testing
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting the hepatitis B vaccine, which is typically administered as a 3-dose series over a 6-month period. Among the groups of people who should definitely get vaccinated against hepatitis B include:
- All infants, starting from birth
- All pregnant women
A pregnant woman who has hepatitis B can pass the infection to her baby during childbirth. Babies born to women with HBV infection have a high risk (90%) of developing chronic infection, which can lead to lifelong health problems.
Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that all pregnant women be tested for hepatitis B as part of their prenatal care. Being tested for HBV infection is particularly important for women who fall into high-risk groups such as women who live with an HBV-infected individual, health-care workers, and women who live in or work with ethnic communities where hepatitis B is common.
Pregnant Women and Hepatitis B Vaccination
If a pregnant woman tests positive for hepatitis B, her doctor can arrange to have the proper medications available in the delivery room to prevent her baby from being infected. In such cases the newborn infant should immediately (within the first 12 hours after birth) be administered the following two shots:
- One dose of Hepatitis B Immune Globulin (HBIG)
- One does of hepatitis B vaccine
At one month and at six months of age babies should receive their second and third doses of the hepatitis B vaccine.
In summary, the good news is that even if a pregnant woman is infected with hepatitis B, in most cases the chances of a mother spreading hepatitis B to her child can be prevented with proper testing and vaccination for both mother and baby.