It had been about 8 months since I had returned from a deployment in Kosovo, where sanitation was poor. That had made me concerned about my risk for hepatitis. Working as a laboratory specialist in the Army, I had been immunized to Hepatitis A and B. I worked in a medical setting where I was exposed to blood and body fluids on a daily basis. Now it was time to use the lab to find out what was wrong with me.
I got my blood drawn and waited a few days to get the results back. All of my liver tests were normal except one, my total bilirubin. This is what caused the jaundice, or yellow skin. On further testing, my Hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc) was positive. I had acute Hepatitis B.
I was shocked and disappointed that I had this disease. I called my fiance, who was overseas at the time, and told him the news. I told him I was pretty sure that I got Hep B working in the lab, but that he should be tested just in case. When he went to the clinic on his base to be tested, they staff there actually put him in the isolation room. Of course, Hepatitis B can only be transmitted by blood and body fluids. The medic even told my fiance that I must have cheated on him! In the end, all of his tests were negative. What a relief.
I was one of the lucky ones. By the time we had found out what was wrong with me, my body was already healing itself. Even without any treatment, my lab results returned to normal within a few months. I suffer from no lasting liver damage and live a normal life. Many who contract chronic hepatitis are not so lucky.
You may ask how I got infected when I had been immunized to Hepatitis B. There are 5-10% of the population called "non-responders" who do not gain immune status from the shot series. Because I have survived the disease, I have now developed a natural immunity and cannot be re-infected.
If you think that you have been exposed to hepatitis of any kind, contact your healthcare provider. Through a physical exam and lab tests, they can determine if you have this disease. Once they have the information of which hepatitis it is and whether it is acute or chronic, they can develop an appropriate care plan for you.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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