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Hepatitis B and liver cancer

Liver cancer is  the fastest-rising and sixth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in Victoria.

The most common risk factor for liver cancer is long-term infections of hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Worldwide, approximately 56 per cent of liver cancers are caused by hepatitis B.

Other risk factors for liver cancer include:

  • fatty liver disease or genetic disorders including haemochromatosis, or alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency
  • type 2 diabetes
  • alcohol consumption
  • obesity
  • smoking tobacco
  • exposure to certain chemicals.

With little or no symptoms, liver cancer is often detected at the very late stage where treatment or transplants are not an option.

This is why early detection of risk factors for liver cancer, such as viral hepatitis or cirrhosis, and linkage to care, help prevent the progression into liver cancer.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus that can affect your liver. For some people, if it is not treated it can lead to liver cancer.  

People who are born in countries where hepatitis B is common or where there isn’t access to the vaccine are at higher risk of hepatitis B infection.

Hepatitis B infection is transmitted through blood or sexual fluids from someone who already has the virus. This can be through:

  • birth or in early childhood. This is the most common way people get hepatitis B. People who were infected at birth or during childhood are more likely to have chronic hepatitis B and develop liver damage and/or liver cancer.
  • sharing items that could have particles of blood on them such as (but not limited to) a syringe, razor, toothbrush or nail clippers. Sometimes blood particles are so small that you can’t see them.
  • having unprotected sex (sexual activity without a condom).

In some countries with high rates of hepatitis B – it could also be transmitted through injuries involving blood passing between an infected person to another person; going for an operation, blood transfusion, dental visit, or getting a tattoo.

Hepatitis B does not spread through contact such as shaking hands, kissing and hugging, or sharing plates, cups or meals. It does not happen from eating dirty food or certain types of food.

Hepatitis B can affect anyone. In Australia, there are over 200,000 people living with hepatitis B.1

Vaccination

Vaccination is the best way to prevent hepatitis B infection. All babies born in Australia from 2000 have been offered the hepatitis B vaccination at birth. Children and adults who have not been vaccinated can also get a free hepatitis B vaccination to protect against the virus. 

Visit the Australian Immunisation Handbook for information on dosages for different groups.

The vaccine won’t protect you if you already have hepatitis B, so it’s important to get tested before you receive your vaccine.

Testing for hepatitis B

Hepatitis B can be detected through a simple blood test. Hepatitis B often doesn't have any symptoms, which is why it's important for people in higher risk groups to get tested to see if they have the virus. This includes:

  • Family members, people who live with or, sexual partners of someone who has chronic hepatitis B
  • People and their families who were born in countries where hepatitis B is common
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Pregnant women
  • People who inject drugs
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who are in or have been in custodial settings
  • People undergoing dialysis
  • People with hepatitis C or HIV, or both
  • Sex workers
  • People who are about to start chemotherapy or immunotherapy 
  • People who already have (or have a family history) of liver disease and/or liver cancer

The blood test can tell you:

  • if you need a vaccine to protect you
  • if you've been vaccinated and are protected; or
  • if you have chronic hepatitis B and need further care.

Talk to your GP about getting a blood test for hepatitis B.

What to do if you have hepatitis B

Hepatitis B affects people in different ways. Some people become sick, and some people don’t. Even if you feel well, the virus can change (or wake up) and start hurting your liver.

This is why you need to see your doctor regularly to check what the virus is doing to your liver. At each visit, you will be asked to get a blood test to see what the virus is doing, and sometimes an ultrasound and/or FibroScan® to check the health of your liver.

Most people need to see their doctor one to two times a year for a check-up. It is important to find out from your doctor how regularly you need to see them. It is different for everyone.

Some people with hepatitis B need medicine to keep them well, and some people don’t. If your doctor told you to take your medicine, you need to take it every day, even if you feel well.

Seeing your doctor for regular check-ups, and taking your medicine daily if your doctor has told you to, are important ways to manage hepatitis B and have a healthy life.  

More information for community members

  • Talk to your doctor
  • Speak to a nurse at Cancer Council Victoria on 13 11 20. For an interpreter call 13 14 50 first and ask for Cancer Council Victoria
  • Visit LiverWELL or call the LiverLine on 1800 703 003. For an interpreter call 13 14 50 first and ask for LiverLine

More information for health professionals

 


1. Viral Hepatitis Mapping Project: Hepatitis B: National Report 2022 (ashm.org.au)

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