With the help of antivirals, many patients today have undetectable viral load (HBV DNA), a relatively healthy liver and cleared the hepatitis B “e” antigen (HBeAg). So when can they consider stopping their daily entecavir or tenofovir pill?
For years, experts have admitted the endgame of antiviral treatment has been “ill-defined.” While antivirals reduce viral load and the risk of liver damage, they rarely cure people. Recently, after years of observing patients and with the help of better diagnostic tools, experts are getting better at identifying when might be safe to stop.
Historically, in addition to reducing viral load to undetectable levels, the goals of antiviral treatment were:
Triggering HBeAg seroconversion: About 21 percent of HBeAg-positive patients with liver damage treated with either tenofovir or entecavir for 12 months are able to lose the hepatitis B “e” antigen (HBeAg) and develop the “e” antibody (HBeAb). This HBeAg “seroconversion” indicates the immune system is fighting the infection and slowing viral replication.
And reducing liver damage and even clearing the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg): About 1-3 percent of patients treated with antivirals lose HBsAg after years of treatment. This is called a “functional cure.” Unfortunately, if you have HBeAg-negative hepatitis B, only 1-2 percent of you will lose HBsAg after five to eight years of antiviral treatment.*
If you are among the lucky few who achieve HBeAg seroconversion or clear HBsAg, when is it safe to stop your daily antiviral? Here are the newest guidelines detailing when it may be safe to stop from the 2017 European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL).
When is it safe to stop antivirals after you’ve achieved HBeAg seroconversion? Stop too early, and HBeAg can reappear. EASL recommend non-cirrhotic patients who experience HBeAg seroconversion and continue to have undetectable HBV DNA for 12 months longer can stop antivirals, as long as there is frequent monitoring after.
When is it safe to stop if you have HBeAg-negative hepatitis B and have undetectable viral load after years of antiviral treatment? EASL guidelines say non-cirrhotic, HBeAg-negative patients who have had at least three years of antiviral treatment, undetectable viral load and no signs of liver damage can stop treatment, as long as there is frequent follow-up monitoring.
When is it safe to stop antivirals if you’ve lost HBsAg? EASL recommends stopping antivirals after losing HBsAg, even if a patient does not develop the hepatitis B surface antibody (HBsAb). Recently, experts have decided that patients who lose HBsAg may be “functionally” cured, even if no surface antibodies appear.
Researchers also have a new way to determine if it’s safe for patients who had HBeAg seroconversion to stop antivirals – by measuring their HBsAg levels. The lower your HBsAg levels, the more likely you are to maintain HBeAg seroconversion after you stop antivirals.
For example, patients may be HBeAg-negative and have no signs of liver damage, but if their HBsAg levels remain high, these patients remain at risk of reactivation and should continue antiviral treatment. (Read more about HBsAg quantification testing here.)
These antiviral “stopping rules” are still in development and are still frustratingly vague for many patients, but slowly researchers are developing tools and compiling more research in order to develop better guidelines when it’s safe to stop the daily antiviral treatment plan.
If you have hepatitis B and you’re considering fasting to lose weight, celebrate Ramadan or “detox” your liver, think again and talk to your doctor first.
Fasting can lower blood sugar, zap your energy, stress your immune system and be life-threatening for people suffering liver damage from viral hepatitis.
“Fasting for very limited periods of time may be safe if you have no signs of liver damage—indicated by normal liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) or an ultrasound exam of the liver,” said Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish. However, if you have liver damage (with ALT/SGPT levels exceeding 30 in men and 19 in women) and are taking medications to treat hepatitis B, research shows fasting may exacerbate liver damage.
Is limited fasting safe? Culturally, fasting is practiced to bring people closer to their spirituality and increase empathy for those living in poverty. For Muslims, fasting is practiced during Ramadan (beginning May 26 and ending June 25). During Ramadan, Muslims are instructed to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.
Historically, Islamic teachings allow pregnant women and people with serious medical conditions to break with tradition and eat and drink during daylight hours if their health is at risk. Rawalpindi Medical College Principal and Professor of Medicine Dr. Muhammad Umar of Pakistan explained that if hepatitis B and C patients are healthy, they can safely fast during the day. But if they are taking antiviral medications, or have serious liver damage such as cirrhosis (liver scarring) or ascites (distention of abdomen due to the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity) or liver cancer, fasting is not allowed.
There is little research about what impact limited fasting has on people with chronic hepatitis B. A report in the Journal of Virology that studied the effect of fasting in hepatitis B-infected transgenic mice found that fasting increased viral load and production of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). Other reports suggest that hepatitis B viral production in the liver is strongly influenced by a person’s nutritional intake.
Bottom line: Hepatitis B patients with liver damage should not fast, and “healthy” people living with chronic hepatitis B should talk to their doctors before embarking on any kind of fasting program.
Does fasting help us lose weight and reduce the risk of “fatty liver?” No. Nearly all medical experts agree fasting is not a healthy way to lose weight. When you fast, you lose fluid quickly, and your weight comes back quickly as soon as you start drinking water and hydrating yourself again.
Many experts say fasting makes it harder to lose weight because it slows your metabolic rate so you process food slower. While fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan may not pose a medical risk if you’re healthy, if you go for long periods without eating, your immune system weakens and isn’t able to suppress a hepatitis B infection effectively.
“A weight loss program that works should include proper nutrition, exercise and portion control,” explained Dr. Gish. He has designed a weight loss guide and contract for patients and doctors that offers guidelines for achieving healthy, long-term weight loss. Dr. Gish’s dieting recommendations include:
Keep a diary of everything you eat;
Exercise three hours a week;
Eat five small meals a day (150 to 200 calories each) using tea cup saucers for plates with no second servings;
And, use glass cups or bottles for drinks, instead of plastic bottles that may contain toxic bis-Phenols (BP).
Will fasting “detox” your body or liver? Most doctors say no. There there is no scientific evidence that shows fasting removes toxins from the body or the liver, because our organs are already very adept at doing that very effectively.
The liver, for example, is a natural detox center as long as it gets the water and nutrients needed to perform the job. Toxins don’t build up in the liver, it’s the liver’s job to break them down and dispose of them. Toxins can build up in fatty tissue, however, which is why a sustained, long-term weight-loss plan involving exercise and a healthy, low-fat diet is recommended.
By Joan Block, RN, BSN, Executive Director and Co-Founder
The story of the Hepatitis B Foundation is a love story that’s never been told. In June, I will retire after 25 years of service, so now feels like the right time to share my personal story.
In 1987, I was diagnosed with hepatitis B. I had just married Tim (co-founder and president of the foundation and its research affiliate, the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute) when my doctor suggested I get tested for hepatitis B because I was born in Korea.
We were devastated by the diagnosis. As a young nurse in the 1980s, the only hepatitis B patients I knew were dying of liver failure or liver cancer. They were kept in isolation rooms where I had to wear a gown, gloves, and mask to even provide them with basic care.
This was a dark and scary time for us. There was nowhere to turn for information or support, and no available treatment. The prospect of our life together was overshadowed by fear and uncertainty.
My husband Tim, a research scientist, took immediate action by changing his focus to hepatitis B and began the quest to find a cure. We reached out to our close friends, Paul and Jan Witte, and together we decided to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure for hepatitis B and helping those affected.
In 1991, the Hepatitis B Foundation was officially established. A quarter of a century later, the foundation has grown from a grassroots effort into the world’s leading nonprofit research and disease advocacy organization solely dedicated to hepatitis B.
There are many reasons why I waited so long to share my personal story. At first, it was fear and shame. The stigma of having an infectious disease was strong, even though I had acquired hepatitis B at birth. Later, I wanted to keep the focus on the mission of the foundation, not on my personal story.
Today, however, I realize that there is a compelling need for people like myself to publicly share their stories. We need to break the silence around hepatitis B. Personal stories are a powerful tool to increase awareness, decrease stigma and end discrimination.
Although I am stepping down as executive director, I will continue to be passionately involved in advancing the foundation’s mission to find a cure. I will also use every opportunity to personally give voice to the more than 257 million people affected by hepatitis B worldwide.
If more of us can stand up and say without fear or hesitation, “I have hepatitis B,” then we will indeed contribute significantly to making hepatitis B history!
In recognition of Joan’s dedicated service, the Board of Directors has created the Joan Block Improving Lives Fund of the Hepatitis B Foundation. This fund will enable the foundation to advocate powerfully to increase research funds for a cure, end discrimination against those affected, and increase screening, prevention and care to save more lives from hepatitis B.
To honor Joan’s valuable legacy, please make a donation at our secure website by clicking here.
Don’t know your hepatitis B status? Get tested. An estimated 75 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. Unfortunately, many doctors won’t test you for hepatitis B unless you request the test. If you or your parents come from a country with high rates of hepatitis B, or if you’ve been sexually active or have other risk factors , get tested. It could save your life.
Get tested for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). More than half of us will have an STI in our lifetime, and in the U.S. about half of new hepatitis B infections are sexually-transmitted. Many doctors don’t test for STIs. In a national survey of U.S. physicians, fewer than one-third routinely screened patients for STIs. To make matters worse, many women are afraid to talk to doctors about their sexual history and STI risk. Be brave, ask your doctor to test you for STIs and hepatitis B if you think you are at risk.
Get immunized against hepatitis B. Not sure if you’ve been immunized during childhood? Tell your healthcare provider and get tested and immunized. Even you were vaccinated in the past, getting a second vaccine series won’t harm you. If your partner has hepatitis B, getting vaccinated is critical to protect your health. Practice safe sex until you have received all three shots. About one to two months after your third shot, get tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (called titers). If you have at least 10 mIU/mL of surface antibodies, you are permanently protected against this serious liver disease.
Infected? In Love? Disclose. When you disclose your hepatitis B status before sex – even if it’s safe sex with a condom – you don’t jeopardize your partner’s health or his/her trust in you. Talking about hepatitis B helps reduce the stigma surrounding this infection and may prompt the person to get vaccinated. How do you tell a potential partner that you have hepatitis B? Calmly and carefully. Do some research so you have a thorough understanding about hepatitis B, which will make it easier for you to calmly explain it. The more you know, the less you fear, and the more comfortable you will be in dispelling their fears and conveying a sense of truth and integrity.
Insist on sterile medical and tattoo equipment. Hepatitis B can live for several days on hard surfaces, including improperly-sterilized and re-used syringes and other medical devices. Whether you’re going for a tattoo or to a dentist or doctor’s office, it is your right to insist that all equipment is brand new (ask to see it removed from protective packaging) and properly sterilized. Visit a licensed, professional tattoo parlor and make sure all tattoo equipment has been sterilized and that needles come out of new packages.
Infected and pregnant? Protect your baby from hepatitis B.
Make sure your newborn gets the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth. Nearly all hepatitis B-infected women will pass the infection onto their children during delivery, but you can stop that infection cycle. In about 90 percent of cases, immediate immunization will prevent infection. In some countries, it may be difficult to get just the single hepatitis B vaccine dose, but if you are able to immunize your baby at birth, you will have protected your child against a potentially dangerous liver disease. If you live in an area where HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) is available, make sure your newborn is also given a dose of HBIG at birth, this adds another layer of protection against infection.
Get your viral load (HBV DNA) tested early in your pregnancy. Some women with high viral loads (exceeding 200,000 IU/mL or 1 million copies/mL) are at high risk of infecting their newborns, even if the baby receives the first vaccine dose within 12 hours of birth. Ask your doctor to test your viral load, if it’s high, medical guidelines recommend treatment with the antiviral tenofovir during the last three months of your pregnancy to lower your viral load. If you doctor doesn’t test your viral load, be assertive and ask for the test.
Breastfeeding is OK, even if you have hepatitis B. If you’re infected with hepatitis B, you can safely breastfeed your baby, as long as the baby was vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth.
Your children infected? Don’t wait to start talking to them about hepatitis B. You need to start talking to them about germs and how to keep themselves and others safe when they’re young. (Listen to Jin’s Story #justB You about growing up with hepatitis B.) This conversation will be one of the hardest discussions you will ever have with your child, and you’ll be talking about it often in the years ahead, but you can do it!
To hear how other mothers handled talking about hepatitis B with their children, visit our Storytelling page and click on Maureen’s Story #justB Brave and Maureen K’s Story #just B Assertive to hear how these mothers navigated issues of disclosure and stigma with their daughters.
Talk to your children about sex and safe sex practices. It’s critical to educate young people about sexual health and STIs. If we want our sons and daughters to feel empowered to take care of their sexual health, we have to change the culture that dictates the way we talk – or don’t talk – about sex. That means removing denial, uncertainty and shame so we have better conversations about sexual health, sexual assault prevention and STIs. It’s also important to encourage our children to have frank sexual health discussions with one another.
Take care of your health, get monitored regularly: It is important to get your hepatitis B monitored regularly – at least every year and more often if you have liver damage. Women living with hepatitis B tend to have lower rates of liver damage than men because estrogen appears to help protect the liver. But even if we lead a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol and cigarettes, as we age our immune system weakens and our viral load (HBV DNA) can start to rise. There is no cure yet for hepatitis B, but there are effective drugs that lower viral load and reduce the risk of liver damage.
Be happy. A mother or woman who is well rested, enjoys a healthy diet, gets plenty of exercise, has good relationships with friends and family members and knows how to ask for help when she needs it, is far better equipped to be happy and be the best mother she can be. It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself. Tough times happen, and sometimes a friend or family member may need us, and we will need to be strong during difficult times. If we take care of ourselves and ask for help, in the long run happiness will prevail. For a profile in joy and courage while fighting hepatitis B in her family, watch Renseley’s Story #justB Strong.
The Hepatitis B Foundation recently launched its storytelling campaign, sharing the stories of people affected by hepatitis B. Join a Twitter interview including Maureen K, parent of a daughter with hepatitis B, at 2 p.m. (EST), Tuesday, May 16, hosted by the Hepatitis B Foundation and StoryCenter. Click here for more information.
We will introduce three of our storytellers and their stories. Join the Twitter interview with the hashtag #justB and hear the poignant stories of real people living with hep B.
We will be introducing Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. Jason, was in a difficult place in his life with addiction and depression when he learned of his hepatitis B and sought treatment. Bunmi, originally from Nigeria, talks about the loss of her father to hepatitis B- related liver cancer and the unwillingness of her family to talk about his disease. Maureen’s hepatitis B journey began with the adoption of her daughter, and the struggle with disclosure with family and friends. These brave storytellers are ready to put an end to the silence surrounding hepatitis B.
Below are the topics scheduled for discussion during the Twitter interview. How can you contribute to the conversation? Please support Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. as they disclose their hepatitis B stories on social media. Consider sharing parts of your hep B story or pose a question. Join the conversation with the hashtag #justB.
T1. Tell us about hepatitis B, the storytelling campaign and what the foundation hopes to achieve for those affected by hepatitis B.
T2. What makes hepatitis B different from other diseases, and how do these stories highlight the challenges associated with hepatitis B?
T3. We’d like to open it up to our storytellers. Please tell us about your story, and what makes hepatitis B different from other diseases.
T4. How has hepatitis B affected your life?
T5. What made you decide to share your hepatitis B story? Were you concerned with the stigma associated with hepatitis B?
T6. Describe your experience meeting with others impacted by hepatitis B.
T7. If there is one message you would like to get across to others about coping with #hepatitis B, what would it be?
T8: What would you tell others that are struggling with whether or not they should share their hepatitis B story?
Are you just getting started with Twitter and want to know how to join the conversation? Type #justBin the search box of the Twitter application and click on the “latest option” to follow the twitter view.
You can prepare any questions or tweets you might have for the above participants in advance, or you can also tweet on the fly, re-tweet, or Like a tweet from the chat.
The topics are labeled T1, T2, etc. so please respond/answer specific topic by using A1, A2, etc. in front of your tweets. Remember to include the #justBhashtag, which is not case sensitive, in all of your tweets.
Looking forward to sharing the stories of our guests on the Twitter view. Please welcome them by joining the conversation!
In an innovative storytelling initiative, people living with chronic hepatitis B open their hearts and share their stories of family secrets, stigma and diagnoses that came too late as they confront the impact of hepatitis B on themselves and the people they love.
The Hepatitis B Foundation, working with StoryCenter, has created unique video stories that share the experiences of people affected by hepatitis B, which affects one-third of the world’s population. The video stories, which debut May 1 in recognition of Hepatitis Awareness Month, are designed to raise awareness about the liver disease that affects 2 million in the U.S.
There is no better way to understand the human toll hepatitis B takes than to hear directly from those affected. Most people know very little about this disease and up to 75 percent of people living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. The hope is that these stories will put a human face on this infection and help improve testing, vaccination and treatment.
One storytelling video, featuring former ABC 7 News anchor Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, talks about how doctors fail to test people for hepatitis B. It was after the CEO of Newsworthy Media suffered liver damage that a doctor tested him for hepatitis B. “It was only because I (had) a medical reporter friend who connected me to a leading hepatologist that I got the attention I needed,” Wang, 49, explains in his story. After his diagnosis, he encouraged family members to be tested and his mother and siblings were also found to be infected by the disease that is easily transmitted at birth.
“We were left to connect the dots because the medical profession is failing to address an epidemic that kills more than 700,000 people a year,” he explained. “It’s bad enough that hepatitis B is a silent killer with few symptoms until it’s too late. It’s also ignored by Asian cultures that consider talk about deadly diseases to be taboo.”
While a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B has been available since 1982, many Americans did not have access to the vaccine. John Ellis Jr., another hepatitis B storyteller who lives in Pensacola, FL, was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B at age 16. He, like many people living with hepatitis B, does not know how he became infected.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked the doctor couldn’t tell me how I contracted it, as if finding out how I contracted hepatitis B would somehow cure me of it. As I grow older, what’s most important to me is maintaining my health.” Ellis explains in his story that he wants to be, “bigger than his diagnosis.” He does not want hepatitis to hold him back or define him. He is an entrepreneur and he has organized a charity bike ride to raise awareness and funding for research.
Another featured storyteller is pharmacist Bunmi Daramaja, of Elkridge, MD, who grew up in Nigeria and emigrated to the U.S. She struggled with her family’s reluctance to discuss her father’s death from liver cancer, resulting from chronic hepatitis B.
“Stigma is everywhere (in my African culture),” she explained in her story. “People don’t think about the facts of how the virus is transmitted– they are afraid to even touch someone who has it. Many people don’t even want to get tested, because treatment is either not available or costs too much money. They say, ‘What’s the point?’ This needs to change.
“In the U.S., the services are here, and I want to make sure that people of African origin know there are resources. I want to end this silence,” she explained.
The Hepatitis B Foundation’s Storytelling page helps tell the story about an infection in the U.S. that is under-diagnosed, under-treated and remains stigmatized across America.