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Hepatitis (HEP-uh-TEYE-tuhss) B is a liver disease. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus, or HBV. Hepatitis that does not get better can cause scarring of the liver, liver cancer, or even death. People can get HBV through contact with infected blood or body fluids. You can get HBV by having sex or sharing needles with an infected person or by being born to a mother with HBV. HBV infection is much more likely to become a life-long infection in people who get it at birth or in early childhood.
About 1 in 10 Asian-Americans is affected by HBV. Rates of HBV infection are especially high among immigrants from Laos, Vietnam, and China. Within this high-risk group, HBV is spread mainly from mother to baby during pregnancy. Babies born with HBV are likely to have it their whole lives. They can spread the disease and can get liver damage or cancer. In fact, the risk of liver cancer is 100 times higher in people with HBV infection. Asian-Americans have the highest rates of liver cancer in the United States.
If you get HBV, you may feel like you have the flu. But most people with HBV have no symptoms. So, you can have HBV (and be spreading the virus) and not know it. Only a blood test can tell for sure if you have HBV. If you have HBV in your blood, you can give hepatitis B to your baby. Ask your doctor to be tested for HBV early in your pregnancy.
Hepatitis B has no cure. But treatment for long-lasting hepatitis B can slow or stop the virus from harming the liver. If hepatitis B causes liver failure, a liver transplant may be needed. This involves replacing the failed liver with a healthy one from a donor.
Content last updated: May 18, 2010.