What Every Women Needs to Know about Hepatitis B and C

Content From: Corinna Dan, R.N., M.P.H., Viral Hepatitis Policy Advisor, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublished: May 15, 20144 min read


Corinna Dan
Corinna Dan

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As we observe both National Women’s Health Week and Hepatitis Awareness Month, it is the opportune time to raise awareness about hepatitis B and hepatitis C among women. Chronic viral hepatitis affects 3.5-5.3 million Americans—including millions of women—and most are unaware of their infection. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C can lead to liver disease, liver cancer, and liver failure.

However, there are steps that every woman can take to avoid these dangerous outcomes. We share this information in a newly available archive of a webinar, What Every Woman Needs to Know about Hepatitis B and CExit Disclaimer, which the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy (OHAIDP) hosted in partnership with the HHS Office on Women’s Health (OWH), one of the 20 federal departments, agencies and offices partnering to pursue the goals of the updated Action Plan for the Prevention, Care, & Treatment of Viral Hepatitis. The webinar was designed to share important health information about this often overlooked and misunderstood health issue and to help women better understand viral hepatitis and what they should do to help themselves and their families stay healthy.

Hepatitis B Is Vaccine-Preventable and Mother-to-Infant Transmission Can Be Prevented

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There is a safe and effective vaccine to prevent hepatitis B, which is most often spread through unprotected sexual exposure, exposure to infected blood, or perinatally—from an infected woman to her infant during birth. Testing for hepatitis B during pregnancy is important and it is covered as a preventive service for women under the Affordable Care Act. By diagnosing mothers before they give birth, we can almost always protect the infant from infection using the vaccine along with hepatitis B immune globulin. Moms with hepatitis B should make sure their children are tested and/or vaccinated and take care of their own health including getting regular checkups and talking with their provider about taking treatment that can reduce their chances of developing liver cancer.

Mother-to-child transmission of HBV is especially concerning, because it is preventable. Tragically, among newborns who are infected with HBV 90 percent will develop chronic infection, remaining infected throughout their lives, and up to 25 percent of these children will die of cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer later in life. “One of the four overarching goals of the updated Viral Hepatitis Action Plan is the elimination of perinatal transmission of hepatitis B,” notes Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, Infectious Diseases. “We are grateful for the active participation of OWH as well as healthcare providers serving women, advocates for women’s health, and individual women and mothers who are joining us to expand hepatitis B awareness and education to women of reproductive age. These activities will help us achieve this life-saving goal.”

Hepatitis C Testing Recommendations and Treatment Advances

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, which is spread through exposure to the blood of an infected person, and more rarely, through sexual transmission. The most common way it is transmitted is through injection drug use; however, people who had blood transfusions or received other blood products before 1992 are also at risk. Both the CDC now recommend that all people born between 1945 and 1965, regardless of risk history, get tested one time for hepatitis C because studies have found that this group, often called “baby boomers,” has a rate of chronic hepatitis C virus infection that is five times higher than the general population. In support of these recommendations, the Surgeon General recently called upon physicians and other healthcare providers to test all baby boomers for HCV infection to prevent liver disease and death. Treatments for hepatitis C are available and have improved over the past few years. New treatments that have become available in the past year are easier to take, of shorter duration and can cure up to 90 percent of people, thereby preventing chronic liver disease that can lead to liver cancer.

Women have some unique concerns about hepatitis B and hepatitis C. OWH has a viral hepatitis fact sheet developed for women. The newly available webinar archive can help to increase awareness and knowledge of viral hepatitis and its impact on women, encourage the sharing of viral hepatitis information including the CDC’s online Hepatitis Risk Assessment, and provide a woman’s personal perspective on being diagnosed with and treated for hepatitis C.

Over the next three years, OHAIDP will be collaborating with OWH and their grantees and other women’s health stakeholders across the country to pursue activities that will improve our nation’s response to viral hepatitis, with a special eye toward meeting the needs of women and girls. We hope you will join us in this life-saving effort. Read more about the Action Plan in this brief fact sheet and stay up-to-date on news of our progress, new resources, and progress reports via the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan’s web page hosted on HIV.gov.