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Hepatitis B Infection Rates in U.S. Higher Than Thought
Date:5/31/2012

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, May 31 (HealthDay News) -- As many as 2.2 million people in the United States may be infected with chronic hepatitis B virus, a new study suggests.

Most of those infected come from countries in Asia and Africa, where regular vaccination for the virus has not been routine, researchers report.

"Hepatitis B is a common infection transmitted at birth or in early childhood. When it's transmitted at that young an age, it tends to remain a chronic infection," said Dr. John Ward, director of the viral hepatitis program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-author of an editorial accompanying the study.

The populations who have the infection are diverse, he said. "This illustrates the difficulty we have in developing prevention programs that take into account cultural and language differences," Ward noted.

In the United States, infants started being vaccinated for the virus in the early 1990s and the rate of vaccination is now over 90 percent, Ward explained. So, the rate of the infection among those born in the United States has dropped significantly, he said.

It is only in the last 10 years that efforts have been under way to vaccinate infants in other countries against hepatitis B, Ward added.

Many people with the virus are not aware that they are infected and run the risk of giving it to others and becoming sick themselves, he added.

There are effective treatments available using antiviral medicines. Often, these drugs have to be taken for an extended time, but when successful, the damage to the liver can be reversed, Ward said. "It's a very effective treatment," he pointed out.

If untreated, people can develop liver cancer, which is the third-leading cause of death around the world, Ward said.

People who come to the United States from areas where hepatitis B is common should be tested for the virus so they ca
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