HIV and Hepatitis

Blood-borne viruses are infectious agents that some people carry persistently in their blood. They can cause severe disease in some cases, and few or no symptoms in others. The virus can be spread to another person, and this may occur whether the carrier of the virus is ill or not.

The main blood-borne viruses of concern are:

  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
  • Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) 

Blood-borne viruses are spread by direct contact with the blood of an infected person. Certain other body fluids may also be infectious e.g. semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. It should be noted that blood-borne viruses are not spread by normal social contact and daily activities e.g. coughing, sneezing, kissing, hugging, holding hands, or sharing bathrooms, swimming pools, toilets, food, cups, cutlery and crockery.



HIV attacks the body’s immune system making it vulnerable, over time, to infections that a healthy immune system would fight off. However, people with HIV do not necessarily have symptoms or feel unwell.

When a person with HIV infection contracts other opportunistic infections that take advantage of the already damaged immune system they may be diagnosed as having AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). There is as yet no cure for AIDS but there are antiretroviral drugs that can improve the quality of life/extend the lifespan of people with HIV as well as prophylactic drugs that prevent them from contracting opportunistic infections and keep them in good health.

The vast majority of HIV-infected children in this country have acquired HIV infection through mother to child transmission. Infection may pass from the mother to the unborn child in the womb during pregnancy, during delivery of the baby or after birth through breastfeeding. Children with HIV should be referred to a specialist HIV paediatrician for assessment.

How is HIV spread?

  • By sexual intercourse with an infected person without a condom (i.e. unprotected sex);
  • By sharing blood-contaminated needles or other equipment for injecting drug use;
  • From an infected mother during pregnancy, while giving birth or through breast feeding.
  • By unprotected oral sex with an infected person;
  • Through a blood transfusion where blood donations are not screened for HIV (all blood donations in the UK are screened for HIV);
  • By invasive medical/dental treatment using non-sterile instruments/needles;
  • By tattooing, cosmetic piercing or acupuncture with unsterilised needles or equipment;
  • By sharing razors and toothbrushes (which may be contaminated with blood) with an infected person.


Hepatitis A 

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). The virus is found in the stool (faeces) of HAV infected people. It is uncommon in the UK, but certain groups are at increased risk. This includes travellers to parts of the world with poor levels of sanitation, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs. Hepatitis A can be unpleasant, but it’s not usually serious and most people make a full recovery within a couple of months.


Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that may damage the liver and cause serious long-term consequences. People with acute hepatitis B infection do not necessarily have symptoms or feel unwell, but some do get a short “flulike illness, often with jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes and dark urine), nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite. Infection without symptoms, and illness without jaundice, occurs particularly in children. Children with persistent hepatitis B infection should be referred for assessment by a specialist clinician. Drug treatments may be available.


Hepatitis C

Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C is a viral infection that may damage the liver. Many people with hepatitis C infection have no symptoms and are often unaware that they have been infected. Some people will experience tiredness, nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and flu-like symptoms. They may also develop jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes and dark urine), but this is unusual.


How do hepatitis B and C spread?

Hepatitis B and C are spread by blood-to-blood contact with an infected person’s blood or other body fluids if they are contaminated with blood. The main routes by which the infections are spread are the same as HIV but there is no proven association between breastfeeding and hepatitis B & C transmission.

You do not get hepatitis B from sneezing, coughing, kissing or holding hands. 

Immunisation against hepatitis B

Hepatitis B infection can be prevented by immunisation.


Immunisation of Foster Carers 

The need to offer immunisation to other foster carers should be based on a risk assessment by the local authority making the placement.