People who are infected with the hepatitis B virus early in life can eventually develop serious health problems, but a new study indicates that most infected people don’t even learn they have the virus until it’s already too late for effective treatment. The World Health Organization calls hepatitis B, which affects more than 240 million people worldwide and kills 780,000 people every year, “a potentially life-threatening liver infection…[that] can cause chronic liver disease and chronic infection and puts people at high risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.”
One of the things that makes hep B so hard to fight is the fact that the virus frequently lies in a somewhat dormant state for years, giving a person what is known as “chronic hepatitis B.” The stealth virus often causes no symptoms to alert an individual to its arrival. When symptoms do occur, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, they can appear any time between six weeks and six months after exposure and include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain, and jaundice.
“The HBV is regarded as a stealth virus, in part, due to its ability to subvert innate immune responses,” writes Dr. Peter Revill of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, in a study published in the journal Gut. Able to effectively hide from the immune system, the hepatitis B virus can continue to replicate, produce viral proteins, and damage the body. Even worse, another new study reports that if a person’s immune system is weakened, as with HIV, the dormant hep B virus can spontaneously reactivate.
For the fourth annual National Hepatitis Testing Day, the CDC offers a zip code and state-searchable map to find a testing event near you.