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Hepatitis B no barrier to health care work, federal officials declare

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What is it?

• A contagious and potentially fatal liver disease.

• Transmitted through bodily fluids.

• The virus that causes it is most commonly passed on during unprotected sex.

• Intravenous drug use is another major risk factor.

• It can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth.

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By The Associated Press
Sunday, May 5, 2013, 8:48 p.m.

Peter Nguyen was a promising medical student when his school learned that he had tested positive for the hepatitis B virus. He said he was blackballed by school administrators and forced to halt his studies.

“I knew the stigma” that came with a hepatitis diagnosis, Nguyen said. But he thought that a medical school, of all places, would understand. “I came there expecting help. Instead, I was greeted with discrimination.”

Nguyen's prospects of becoming a physician are a lot brighter today. The Department of Justice recently declared in a legal settlement that hepatitis B patients are protected by federal disability law. And, separately, federal health officials have issued a revised set of guidelines that make it clear that health care workers and students who carry the hepatitis B virus — HBV for short — generally pose little or no risk to patients.

Taken together, advocates say, the health guidelines and the Justice Department settlement remove barriers to practice, handing HBV-positive health professionals and students a pair of powerful tools to combat discrimination.

“It gives us so much more leverage. We no longer have to wring our hands,” said Joan Block, executive director and co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation, a nonprofit in Doylestown, Bucks County.

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