Hep B Blog

All posts by hepbtalk

Doctors Get a New Tool to Improve Hepatitis B Treatment and Monitoring

Photo courtesy of CDC.
Photo courtesy of CDC.

By Christine Kukka

A recently-approved test now allows doctors to measure exactly how much hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) people with chronic hepatitis B have in their blood; so why should patients get this test and how will it help the millions of people around the world infected with hepatitis B?

According to experts, including the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Medical Director Robert Gish, knowing a patient’s HBsAg levels gives doctors:

  • A better understanding of what stage of hepatitis B a patient is in;
  • A more accurate assessment of a patient’s liver cancer risk; and
  • Essential information to judge if it’s time to start or stop treatment.

And in the future, this test may be critical to finding a cure.

Don’t labs already test for HBsAg? HBsAg, the protein that makes up the surface of the virus, is what labs look for in a blood sample to determine if a person is currently infected with hepatitis B.

Historically, labs determined only if HBsAg was present or not, which is why patients either tested positive or negative for HBsAg. Recently, countries outside the U.S. began measuring the quantity of HBsAg in blood samples and late last year the Food and Drug Administration approved a quantitative HBsAg test in the U.S.

Hepatitis B Foundation President Timothy Block
Hepatitis B Foundation President Timothy Block

“The strange thing about HBsAg, is that each hepatitis B virus requires only about 100 HBsAg molecules to provide its envelope protein, but the virus produces about 100- to 1 million-times more HBsAg than is needed, leaving millions of HBsAg circulating in the bloodstream,” explained Timothy Block, president of the Hepatitis B Foundation and the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, the foundation’s research arm.

That over-abundance of HBsAg is why people continue to test positive for HBsAg even if they have an undetectable viral load (HBV DNA).

Why is there so much HBsAg? Researchers, including Block, suspect that in addition to covering the virus’ surface, HBsAg also serves as a decoy to “exhaust” or deflect our immune system’s:

  • T-cells, so they can’t attach to and attack the virus,
  • And B-cells, so they don’t generate the antibodies needed to destroy the viral antigens that make up the virus.

So when HBsAg levels decline–either due to treatment or a strong immune response to the infection–researchers know a patient is on the road to clearing the infection. Bottom line: A low or undetectable HBsAg level means patients are winning the war against hepatitis B and their risk of liver damage is greatly reduced. 

When should doctors measure HBsAg? According to Quest Diagnostics, which created the test, measuring HBsAg levels better identifies which patients are at risk of hepatitis B reactivation.

For example, a patient may be HBeAg-negative and have normal liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) that indicate a liver is “healthy,” but if HBsAg remain high, doctors know a patient remains at risk of reactivation and hasn’t really entered the safer, “inactive” stage.

Quest maintains that measuring HBsAg and viral load (HBV DNA) together, “…improves the ability to differentiate the phases in HBeAg-negative patients and HBeAg-positive disease and results in a diagnostic accuracy of 70 to 94 percent.

According to Quest, patients with HBV genotype B or C who have low HBV DNA levels (less than 2,000 IU/mL) and HBsAg levels below 1,000 IU/mL have lower risk of liver damage and cancer. In fact, if HBsAg is under 100 IU/mL, patients may be on their way to clearing HBsAg from their blood.

Dr. Robert Gish
Dr. Robert Gish

Knowing for sure when treatment is working: HBsAg levels also reflect the amount of virus protein produced by infected liver cells and if treatment is effectively stopping the virus from producing these proteins. If a patient is treated with pegylated interferon, a decline in HBsAg during the first 12 weeks indicates a successful response to the drug. No change in HBsAg levels indicates interferon will not be effective.

HBsAg changes may also determine if antivirals are working. “In HBeAg-negative patients, low (HBsAg) levels at the end of treatment are associated with sustained virologic response,” Quest officials noted.

If patients have been treated with antivirals for many months or years and achieve undetectable viral load and low HBsAg levels, doctors may consider taking them off the drug.

Dr. Gish considers this new test an essential tool that providers should employ and patients should ask for to get an accurate picture of their infection state and liver cancer risk.

“I use it today to determine when to start treatment, assess a patient’s prognosis while on treatment, enhance patient compliance and determine when treatment can be stopped or should be continued,” he explained. “And this will also be an extremely helpful tool for drug developers in the future to identify promising treatments.”

Because lowering or eradicating HBsAg appears essential to stopping chronic infection and empowering the immune system to fight this complex infection, researchers around the world are working to develop treatments that inhibit HBsAg.

“I am a big believer in finding drugs that suppress HBsAg,” Dr. Block noted. Two of these surface antigen eradicator products are currently in Phase II trials.

Valentine’s Day Advice for Those Looking for Love While Living with Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

Valentine’s Day celebrates love and romance, but when you have hepatitis B, you may fear dating could lead to rejection and heartbreak.

Alright, so you had a few unhappy dating experiences because of hepatitis B … believe me, you’re better off without those people. If hepatitis B hadn’t ended the relationship, it would have been some other issue.

Here are two pieces of valuable advice for those looking for love while living with hepatitis B.

A leader of the Hepatitis B Information and Support email list recently offered this sage counsel to members who feared they would never date, marry or have children because of their hepatitis B.

“As the list mom and a divorced woman who has been dating for the last eight years, I have personal experience with this topic. I have to remind you, having chronic hepatitis B does NOT have to create a barrier to dating. If anything, it can help you determine who is a good partner and will possibly be there for you in the long-term.

Image courtesy of Graphics Mouse at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Graphics Mouse at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“Also, and this is the biggie, there is a VACCINE for hepatitis B. If you meet someone you want to have an intimate relationship with, they can be vaccinated (some already are!)

“There is no reason to feel as if you are inferior or less deserving of love because of your hepatitis B.  We all want and need acceptance. The only barrier is what you have built in your mind.

“Personally, I have been in three long-term relationships since my divorce.  I am currently in a loving relationship with a man who cares about me deeply and has no issues with my hepatitis B.

“A word of wisdom from a friend has stuck with me. If someone loves you, they will care about YOUR heath, and make room for ways to keep you in their life.

“Don’t wall yourself off from the experiences of meeting new people and potential love and partnership with another soul.  Life is too short to be afraid of getting hurt.  You ‘will’ get hurt, and you WILL get back up to live another day and love again. The risk of rejection is worth the reward.

Disclose, before it’s too late.

When you disclose your hepatitis B status before sex – even if it’s safe sex with a condom – we don’t jeopardize our partner’s health or their trust in us. Talking about hepatitis B helps reduce the stigma surrounding this infection and may even prompt the person to get vaccinated.

So how do we tell a potential partner that we have hepatitis B? Calmly and carefully. Here is one way to initiate disclosure: “Before we become intimate, we need to talk about STIs and contraception. The reason I’m bringing this up is that I have hepatitis B. You need to know that, and we need to decide how to protect ourselves… ”

Do some research. Having a thorough understanding about hepatitis B can make it easier for you to explain it to a potential partner. 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.

Image courtesy of radnatt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of radnatt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Here are some tips from the American Sexual Health Association for disclosing a sexually-transmitted infection.

  1.  Pick a time when both of you will be in reasonably good moods and relaxed for this conversation. Choose a place with few, if any, distractions.
  2.  Start out on a positive note (“I’m really happy with our relationship…”). This will put them in a positive mindset, and they may respond more agreeably than if you start out saying something like, “I have some really, really bad news… “
  3.  Your delivery can influence their reaction to what you say. If you talk calmly about hepatitis B, they may respond similarly. If you act like it’s the end of the world, they might agree that it is.
  4.  Allow a conversation to take place, rather than doing all of the talking yourself.

Disclosure is the right and ethical thing to do. How they respond is out of your control, but their response might just surprise you.

A Valuable Tool Against Chronic Hepatitis B Goes Unused in Many Developing Countries

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

A critical tool that stops the spread of nearly half of all new chronic hepatitis B infections is still unavailable in many developing countries – the hepatitis B vaccine birth dose.

When the hepatitis B vaccine is immediately administered to a baby born to a hepatitis B-infected mother, it stops the terrible spread of hepatitis B to a new generation.

But this vaccine remains unavailable and financially out-of-reach for many parents in rural areas of Africa, Asia and other regions.

“In Ghana, even if parents know where to find the vaccine, the cost sometimes deters them from accessing it,” said Theobald Owusu-Ansah of the Hepatitis B Foundation of Ghana.   “And when midwives help mothers deliver their babies in their homes, they do not have the vaccine with them because it must be refrigerated.”

While a global childhood immunization program, sponsored by the global vaccine alliance GAVI, has saved millions of lives, the hepatitis B birth dose remains a critical, missing piece of its otherwise successful global immunization strategy.

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

To effectively prevent mother-to-child (perinatal) transmission of hepatitis B, the single-dose hepatitis B vaccine must be administered within 12 to 24* hours of birth. In about 90 percent of cases, this vaccine effectively prevents infection, unless the mother’s viral load is extremely high.**

Today, GAVI funds and promotes the pentavalent vaccine, which prevents five diseases including hepatitis B, for nearly all children in developing countries. But here’s the catch, the earliest the first dose of the pentavalent vaccine can be administered is six weeks of age because it contains the diphtheria vaccine. This is far too late to prevent perinatal hepatitis B infection.

GAVI’s pentavalent vaccine makes economic and medical sense. One vaccine that prevents several diseases lowers manufacturing and shipping costs and requires fewer injections. Indeed, widespread immunization with GAVI’s pentavalent vaccine in 73 developing countries has prevented 7 million deaths, but it doesn’t prevent chronic hepatitis B acquired at birth.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has made eradication of hepatitis B by 2030 a major goal, but it is unattainable unless perinatal infection is prevented.

Without GAVI’s financing or promotion of the hepatitis B birth dose, many developing countries have done little to promote the birth dose, despite their high rates of hepatitis B. According to the WHO, in 2015, 8.4 million babies were born in African countries that did not provide the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine.

In addition to a lack of political will on the part of GAVI and these countries, there are other barriers to distributing the hepatitis B birth vaccine. As Owusu-Ansah explained, about one-third of births in his native Ghana  and about 45 percent of all births in Africa take place without a healthcare worker or midwife present.

Volunteers from the Rann India Foundation teach villagers about hepatitis B testing and prevention in India.
Volunteers from the Rann India Foundation teach villagers about hepatitis B testing and prevention in India.

Suren Surender, founder and president of the Rann Bhoomi Foundation, which educates rural villagers in India about hepatitis B prevention, added that even when healthcare workers are present at childbirths, “there is a lack of knowledge about birth dose administration and there is also a lack of community awareness about the benefits of getting the birth dose.”

Having a global leader like GAVI lend financial and strategic support for the hepatitis B birth vaccine would go far to chip away at these high perinatal infection rates in rural regions. In 2013, GAVI and the global vaccine alliance explored funding the hepatitis B birth dose as part of its Vaccine Investment Strategy (VIS),  but officials decided not to fund it.

According to a GAVI spokeswoman, the key deterrent was implementation — getting the refrigerated vaccine birth dose to rural areas within hours of a child’s birth – rather than cost.

“Many births in GAVI-supported countries do occur outside health facilities,” she noted. “Indeed, coverage of hepatitis B birth dose in many countries delivering this intervention is low. Ultimately, the Vaccine Investment Strategy analysis and consultations recommended that (GAVI) should focus its limited resources on other high-impact vaccines at the time.”

However, research suggests the hepatitis B vaccine may be effective for several days or weeks in warm climates without refrigeration, which could increase their use in rural regions if there was more financial and political support.

In 2018, GAVI will reconsider potential support for the hepatitis B birth dose when it develops a new Vaccine Investment Strategy, with a decision expected in late 2018.

GAVI’s support for the birth vaccine is needed immediately. Only GAVI has the resources and political clout to help countries realign their immunization policies to allow the next generation of children born to hepatitis B-infected parents to live without liver disease.

*North American medical guidelines recommend the first hepatitis B vaccine dose be administered within 12 hours of birth, while WHO recommends the vaccine be given within 24 hours of birth.

**The addition of a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) along with the vaccine raises the prevention rate a few percentage points. However, the vaccine alone is highly effective.

If Hepatitis B Is Sexually Transmitted, How Come My Partner Isn’t Infected?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

I thought hepatitis B was sexually transmitted? I just tested positive, but my partner tested negative, we’ve been together for years, what gives?

This question is a common one. Hepatitis B is indeed easily transmitted sexually, so why do some people — who were not vaccinated — never get hepatitis B from their sexual partners?

It comes down to variables, such as the type of sexual activity you engage in, the viral load (HBV DNA) of the infected partner, and who is on the receiving end of infectious body fluids, especially blood that contains the most virus and semen.

Having one partner infected, and other not, can add more stress to an already traumatic hepatitis B diagnosis. “It was very confusing and made me question how was it possible I was the only one infected,” said a woman who tested positive while her husband tested negative.  “I thought it was possibly a mistake, maybe I was a biological anomaly, which of course I was not.”

Let’s look at the factors that affect who gets infected and who doesn’t when two people have sex.

Viral load: Semen, vaginal fluids and blood all contain the hepatitis B virus (HBV), and the higher the viral load, the more infectious one’s blood and body fluids are. However, having an undetectable viral load doesn’t mean you won’t infected someone during unsafe sex. Even if a man has an undetectable viral load, studies show his semen still contains some HBV and can spread infection, though the risk is lower.

So the rule here is if a man tests positive for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), he must consider himself infectious.

The role of gender: In heterosexual relationships, uninfected women are at higher risk of getting infected by a male partner infected with hepatitis B, than the reverse. Women are on the receiving end of semen, which greatly increases their risk of becoming infected unless a condom is used.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

When a woman is infected with hepatitis B, an uninfected man is at risk through direct contact with her vaginal secretions, but that contact is lower-risk than a woman’s direct exposure to infectious semen during intercourse.

However, an infected woman who is menstruating is more likely to spread hepatitis B because blood can contain higher levels of HBV than vaginal secretions. That is why gloves and dental dams are recommended to provide a barrier against exposure.

The type of sexual activity: Certain sexual activities are far more efficient at spreading hepatitis B than others. Oral sex appears to have a lower rate of hepatitis B transmission than vaginal sex. Anal sex carries a very high risk of transmission because of tears in the skin that can occur during penetration improves transmission of HBV.

Fingering carries a lesser risk, unless the infected woman is menstruating or a person has bruises or cuts on their hands that allow entry to hepatitis B in semen or vaginal fluids, then gloves are recommended.

The “uninfected” partner could already have been infected and cleared hepatitis B: When a person is first diagnosed with hepatitis B, doctors often test his or her partner for only the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which indicates a current hepatitis B infection. If they are negative for HBsAg, they are immediately vaccinated.

If the partner isn’t also tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs or HBsAb), then no one knows if  the individual was infected years ago (or earlier in the relationship) with hepatitis B and cleared the acute infection.

Hepatitis B is not called the “silent” infection for nothing — many people who get hepatitis B never have any symptoms and never realize they were infected. As a result, a wife, husband, partner or lover who tested negative for HBsAg, may actually have been infected in the past and cleared the infection and now has protective hepatitis B surface antibodies to forever safeguard them from infection. If they’re immediately vaccinated and retested after the three-dose vaccination, they will test positive for surface antibodies, without ever knowing that their antibodies resulted from a past infection, not immunization.

Bottom line, if one of you have been diagnosed and the other is not infected, it is unusual but not uncommon. Get tested and immediately vaccinated if the uninfected partner tests negative for the hepatitis B surface antibody.

Take a quiz to find out how much you know about hepatitis B transmission: click here.

Facing the Threat of Hepatitis B Following Sexual Coercion or Assault

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

Around the world, the most common way hepatitis B is spread is through sex — and sometimes it’s not consensual.

In the United States, sexual transmission of hepatitis B accounts for nearly two-thirds of acute or new cases in adults. According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, about one in five women and one in 71 men reported experiencing rape at some point in their lives. And abusers rarely use condoms.

One of the hardest things to talk about is the relationship between how hepatitis B is spread and sexual assault or coercion – defined as anytime a woman, man or child is forced to submit to sex either through rape or assault, or with a partner who refuses to use a condom.

About one in 20 women and men (5.6% and 5.3% respectively) experienced sexual violence, such as sexual coercion or unwanted sexual contact in the 12 months prior to the CDC’s survey; and 13 percent of women and 6 percent of men reported they had experienced sexual coercion at some time in their lives. Among women, most abusers were intimate partners, family members or acquaintances. Among males, most perpetrators were acquaintances.

Research suggests these figures under-estimates the true prevalence of sexual violence around the world, which endangers public health on many levels. There is the mental trauma victims experience and there is the spread of sexually-transmitted infections, such as hepatitis B and HIV.

Hepatitis B is 50- to 100-times more infectious than HIV and can be passed through the exchange of body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids and blood. The CDC recommends the following steps to protect against hepatitis B following sexual assault.

When the perpetrator has hepatitis B (is positive for the hepatitis B surface antigen-HBsAg):

  • If the victim has never been vaccinated, he or she should receive the hepatitis B vaccine series and also receive a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies).
  • If the victim has been vaccinated in the past, he or she should immediately get a hepatitis B vaccine dose (called a booster dose.)

When the perpetrator’s hepatitis B status is not known:

  • If the victim has not been immunized against hepatitis B, he or she should received the hepatitis B vaccine series.
  • If the victim has already been vaccinated against hepatitis B, no treatment is needed.

In South Africa, for example, women’s inability to control their lives sexually is fueling the HIV epidemic. One study that followed 1,500 pregnant women who were in married or stable relationships found an astonishing HIV infection rate of 38 percent. Many reported having been abused physically and sexually in the recent past, which helps explain why AIDS is now the biggest killer of young women in southern Africa.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sexual assault is not always accompanied by physical violence. A woman may not have the power to require her partner to use a condom without risking physical or verbal abuse, or a person may not tell his or her sexual partner that they have hepatitis B. Coercion can be silent, and fueled by ignorance and low self-esteem.

Here is an email that the Hepatitis B Foundation recently received that illustrates this: “My boyfriend is hepatitis B and C positive, as he was a drug addict. We had unprotected sex often over two to three months. I want to ask, is there any chance of myself being infected?”

Sadly, this woman is at very high risk of infection, especially from hepatitis B. What stopped her from insisting he wear a condom or walking away from a relationship with a man who had little concern for her health and welfare?

Poverty, a lack of choices, resources and education, and a host of other factors stop victims from walking away from their abusers every day around the world.

To protect the health of people around the world, we need to fight in any way we can to stop sexual violence, protect women’s reproductive health, and enable everyone to control their lives.

In southern Africa, researchers have come up with a vaginal ring that contains anti-HIV drugs and discreetly protects a woman from HIV infection, without requiring her to negotiate condom use with an abuser inside or outside her marriage.

But this treats a symptom, not the disease of sexual violence that spreads trauma, fear and diseases such as hepatitis B. However we can, whenever we can, we must work to make a difference.

The Hepatitis B Community Cringes As Vaccine Skeptics Take the Stage in Washington

Image courtesy of Tuomas_Lehtinen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tuomas_Lehtinen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

In a profound blow to science, public health and the hepatitis B community, President-elect Donald Trump is reportedly asking Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who believes that vaccines cause autism — to chair a national commission on vaccines.

Countless studies show vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism. The hepatitis B vaccine alone has contributed to an 82 percent drop in this deadly liver disease in the U.S. since 1991. Before universal childhood immunizations became available, one in 20 Americans had been infected with hepatitis B. Sadly, that spectacular success has not quieted vaccine skeptics.

It is heart-breaking to hear that an anti-vaccine activist may gain a public forum to promote his scientifically-unfounded opinions. If the hepatitis B vaccine had been available to my daughter and millions of others around the world at birth, there would be fewer people with chronic hepatitis B, fewer deaths from liver disease and cancer and far less anguish, fear and stigma. Vaccines safely and effectively prevent disease, and all of us who have been touched by hepatitis B can attest to their life-saving value.

Let’s review the indisputable scientific facts about vaccines, and why this controversy has resurfaced.

In 1998, the well-respected medical journal Lancet published a paper by researcher Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues linking a standard measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and its preservative  thimerosal to autism. Despite its tiny sample size (just 12 children) and its speculative conclusions, the study was publicized and bolstered the anti-vaccine movement.

The study proved to be a fraud. Editors of the Lancet later retracted the report, and additional investigations into the study found some of children in the study did even have autism. But the damage was done and hepatitis B vaccine makers and others scrambled to remove thimerasol from their vaccines to counter the undocumented claims that it posed a threat to children. A thimerasol-free, hepatitis B vaccine became available in  late 1999.

Image courtesy of meepoohfoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of meepoohfoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

But parents in the U.S. increasingly chose not to vaccinate their children, even after the disappearance of thimerasol. They didn’t like all the shots their babies were given, and vaccines became victims of their own success. They were so effective that parents began to believe their children were no longer at risk of these vaccine-preventable diseases and did not need immunization.

Before the measles vaccine became available, there were 500,000 cases of measles annually in the U.S. and 500 deaths. By 2000, due to universal immunization, measles had been eradicated. Then the anti-vaccine movement took hold and more and more parents chose not to vaccinate their children. In 2014, the U.S. experienced 667 cases of measles in 27 states, including an outbreak at Disneyland. This is what happens when parents stop vaccinating their children.

What is so piercing and terrible is that millions of us would be free of hepatitis B if only we had been vaccinated at birth or during childhood.

To arouse suspicion about vaccines that save millions of people every day is unforgivable. My daughter has hepatitis B today because this vaccine was not available when she was born. To plant false seeds of doubt about a life-saving vaccine undermines all we have worked for in our effort to eradicate hepatitis B in the next 30 years.

“A conspiracy theory such as the one about the autism vaccine is like an untreated wound,” wrote Michael Specter recently in The New Yorker. “It has festered for years, and yesterday Trump and Kennedy guaranteed that it can only deepen—causing tremendous destruction and needless pain.”

For factual information about vaccine safety, schedules, and why babies are given so many vaccines, click here.

It’s Flu Season: When You Have Hepatitis B, Too Much Tylenol Can Damage Your Liver

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

Cold season is here and sometimes getting a flu shot and consistently washing our hands aren’t enough to keep colds at bay. If you do get sick, make sure the over-the-counter medication you take doesn’t damage your liver while it’s relieving your aches and pains.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol or Paracetamol) is the most popular over-the-counter painkiller in the United States. Americans take 8 billion acetaminophen pills each year for pain reduction, and the drug is also found in cough and congestion medications. When we have hepatitis B, we need to be careful we don’t unintentionally overdose when we take acetaminophen pills to reduce our pain and cough or sinus medications that also contain acetaminophen.

The trouble is, dozens of cold and flu medications that promise to suppress our coughs and let us sleep through the night also contain acetaminophen, but it’s not emblazoned in large print on their labels. Instead, we need to search carefully for “acetaminophen” listed in its ingredient list on the back of the package.

Image courtesy of lobster20 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of lobster20 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How much acetaminophen can adults safely take? Unless we have serious liver damage, such as cirrhosis, doctors say we can safely take the recommended dose of acetaminophen for a very limited period of time without damaging our livers. In fact, doctors routinely recommend this painkiller following a liver biopsy or to reduce interferon’s flu-like side effects.

The maximum dose of acetaminophen that adults can safely take over a 24-hour period is four grams, which equals eight extra-strength pills or about 12 regular-strength pills. (An extra-strength pill contains 500 mg and a regular strength pill contains 325 mg).

But, if we drink two alcoholic beverages a day, we need to cut that recommended acetaminophen dose in half, that’s how much acetaminophen can affect our livers. If we take too much of this drug at any one time, it builds up in our liver and causes serious side effects. For example, if an adult takes 14 to 20 extra-strength acetaminophen tablets in one dose, he suffers serious liver damage. That’s why some countries, such as Great Britain, restrict how many acetaminophen pills you can buy at a time because people have used this drug to commit suicide.

Acetaminophen is so powerful, studies show that taking the recommended doses of acetaminophen continuously for two weeks can cause mild to moderate—though reversible—liver damage. So careful use of acetaminophen is essential to protect our livers when we have hepatitis B.

Read the label carefully! If you’re taking acetaminophen already for fever and headaches and need something to reduce congestion or coughing, study the cough and sinus medication’s label carefully so you don’t unintentionally double your acetaminophen intake. If you need a cough-suppressant to sleep, stop taking acetaminophen tablets if the cough medicine also contains it.

Follow instructions carefully: If the instructions say take the drug every six hours, follow the directions and don’t take it any sooner.

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Is ibuprofen better for than acetaminophen when we have a cold? The Cleveland Clinic compared the two over-the-counter painkillers and found ibuprofen (common brand name Advil or Motrin) did not cause the liver toxicity that acetaminophen does. So opting for ibuprofen for pain relief when you have hepatitis B AND a cold, might be a better choice.

Bottom line: Talk to your doctor about what painkiller or cough or sinus medication to take when you’re sick, and read the label carefully. If that sinus medication also advertises that it reduces headaches and other painful cold symptoms, it probably contains a acetaminophen. Limit your doses and don’t mistakenly double up on acetaminophen and damage your liver.

Click here for a complete list of drug brand names containing acetaminophen.

Can’t decide if you have a cold or the flu? Find out here.

Ten Things You Should Know About Hepatitis B and Do in 2017

Image courtesy of krishna arts at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of krishna arts at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

It’s 2017, and experts around the world continue to study the complex life cycle of the hepatitis B virus in order to find a chink in its armor that will lead to a cure. In 2016, there were successes and disappointments in the research and healthcare arena. Here is what you need to know about hepatitis B in 2017.

If you’re taking tenofovir, ask your doctor about TAF if you’re experiencing kidney problems or bone loss, especially if you’re an older woman. If you’re taking the antiviral tenofovir (Viread) long-term, ask your doctor about replacing it with TAF (Vemlidy). TAF is a reformulated version of tenofovir that delivers the antiviral more effectively to liver cells at a lower dose.  Currently, doctors prescribe either tenofovir or entecavir for liver damage. Entecavir does not cause bone loss, but it doesn’t work in people who have developed drug resistance to lamivudine or adefovir. For them, tenofovir is the only option, but it can cause bone loss and kidney problems when used long-term. With the U.S. Food and Drug’s recent approval of TAF, consumers can now get tenofovir’s robust antiviral activity at a lower dose. Because it’s brand new, your provider may not know about it, so ask about it to see if it would be better for you.

Was medical or recreational marijuana just approved in your state? Exercise caution. Many in the hepatitis C community have used medically-prescribed marijuana to ease side effects from interferon for years, so many assume it’s also safe for people with hepatitis B. Unfortunately, there are no studies that conclusively prove its safety. One study  that monitored liver fibrosis in 700 people coinfected with HIV and hepatitis C found, “…no evidence for an association between cannabis (marijuana) smoking and significant liver fibrosis progression in HIV/HCV coinfection.”

But another study  concluded: “Cell culture and animal model studies support that (marijuana) could have a therapeutic effect on liver injury and fibrosis progression. However, three cross-sectional studies in patients with chronic hepatitis C suggest that daily cannabis use is associated with fibrosis and steatosis.”

There is also no information indicating if marijuana is safer when it’s consumed in edibles vs. smoked, though many assume smoking introduces more toxins and chemical to the body. Bottom line: Just because your state approved it doesn’t mean marijuana is safe for you. Talk to your doctor and watch for more studies.

Image courtesy of Nanhatai8 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Nanhatai8 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Fight for affordable healthcare for all. Newly-elected federal officials are threatening to fundamentally change a variety of healthcare insurance programs serving moderate- and low-income Americans and roll back protections, including mandated coverage of pre-existing conditions like hepatitis B. Many of these programs and coverage mandates have helped people living with hepatitis B get the care and medications they need. If you want these programs and safeguards to remain, you’re going to have to fight for them. Please check the Hep B United’s website regularly to learn about what is happening with hepatitis B on the federal level, and what you can do as an advocate.

Don’t give up hope. We know it’s been a tough year and that some promising drugs that were in clinical trials were shelved, but don’t give in to despair. There are more drugs in the works. Keep checking the Drug Watch page and clinical trials page to learn the latest.

Get monitored regularly. No one likes a blood draw, but it’s important to be tested annually or more often if you have a high viral load and/or signs of liver damage. There may not be a cure yet, but there are effective treatment options. Be brave, protect your health, and go to the lab for your blood test.

Demand to be screened for liver cancer. Some experts say current medical guidelines don’t go far enough to screen us for liver cancer. So take charge of your health and ask for a liver cancer screen, which includes a semi-annual blood test and an ultrasound.  Hepatitis B-infected Asian men (or of Asian descent) over age 40 years and Asian women over age 50 years, patients with a family history of liver cancer, patients with cirrhosis, and Africans over the age of 20 should all be screened. Think you’re not at risk for cancer because you take antivirals? Think again. Antivirals help reduce liver damage, but if you’ve had cirrhosis or are older, the risk of liver cancer remains.

If someone promises a new cure or treatment that sounds too good to be true….it probably is. In our search to be rid of hepatitis B, we may be tempted to yield to clever marketing and try a supplement that promises to cure us. But first, do your homework and practice precaution. To check out an herbal supplement, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s website to see what scientific evidence exists for a supplement and talk to your doctor. There is no magic bullet that will cure hepatitis B. Experts hope to find one soon, but for now be patient and stay skeptical. If you want to safeguard your health, eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol and cigarettes.

Pregnant with hepatitis B? Get your viral load tested and ask your doctor about antivirals. The American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) recommends that pregnant women with viral loads (HBV DNA) higher than 200,000 IU/mL (or 1 million copies/mL) receive an antiviral (either tenofovir or telbivudine). The antivirals won’t hurt you or your baby and will reduce the risk that your baby will be infected with hepatitis B to nearly zero, as long as your baby gets the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) within 12 hours of birth.

Fight discrimination against hepatitis B and know your rights. Hepatitis B should never be a barrier to the education or job you want. Sadly, ignorance and stigma persist. It depends on us, our friends, and our family, to stand up and fight for our civil rights. We can’t back down. If we don’t fight, who will?

Be brave, disclose, and get your friends, family, and lovers screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated. Yes, it will be one of the hardest conversations you will ever have, but if you are infected with hepatitis B, you need to disclose your infection to people who may be at risk. If you just discovered you have chronic hepatitis B, which you may have contracted at birth, you need to tell your siblings and your mother and get them screened and immunized if needed. Dating someone, and about to take the next step? You need to disclose ahead of time and give them information and choices. It builds trust and it’s the right thing to do. You would want the same for yourself. For more on disclosure click here.

Happy 2017!  Our hope for a cure continues.

As of January 2017, TAF has been approved for hepatitis B treatment in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

How to Navigate Disclosure, Denial and Drinking with Hepatitis B During the Holidays

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

With the holidays come  family reunions and parties that can set the stage for some big emotional challenges for people living with hepatitis B.

  • Do we disclose our hepatitis B to our families or keep quiet?
  • Do we remind relatives to get tested and/or treated, or quietly endure their denial?
  • And, can we resist the host who insists everyone should be drinking alcohol with him?

Is this the holiday when we finally tell our parents or siblings about our hepatitis B?

First, take your family’s cultural temperature towards hepatitis B. Historically, in many cultures people with hepatitis B were shunned and could not marry, attend college or advance professionally. If your family still holds some of these baseless beliefs, be prepared to do some educating as you try to dispel their fears and prejudices. Come armed with printed information, website addresses and other material to bolster your family-focused public health campaign.

If you were infected at birth, you may have family members who are also infected. The most valuable gift you may give them is your disclosure and your education, especially if it leads them to get tested, vaccinated and treated.

If you suspect you are the only one in your family who is infected because of a past medical procedures that transmitted the infection, or sexual encounters or injecting drug use, think carefully about disclosing. Are your family members open and accepting? Will they suspend judgement and be supportive? Perhaps you should tell only one or two relatives whom you can trust, or stick to your community of friends. If you have doubts, erring on the side of caution for the time being may be best.

Should you encourage family members to get tested, vaccinated or treated?

If you know hepatitis B runs in your family, then your parents, uncles, aunts and siblings could also be infected. Should you bring up hepatitis B during dinner and encourage them to be treated?

Many people find denial a far more comfortable option than facing the possibility of having hepatitis B, which is why nearly two-thirds of people with chronic hepatitis B remain undiagnosed and untreated. So how do we bring up hepatitis B without sending everyone running from the dinner table?

  • Bring up an interesting fact, “Hey, did you hear that one in 12 Asian-Americans have hepatitis B and two in three don’t know it?”
  • Or ask about a relative’s health history. “I was wondering about grandpa in Vietnam, you said he died from liver problems, do you think it was hepatitis B?”
  • Or try breaking through the stereotypes surrounding hepatitis B. “Everyone thinks you get hepatitis B because you’re promiscuous or do drugs, but actually most Asian-Americans got it at birth.”

Choose a time when there won’t be many distractions. Try talking to a few relatives ahead of time so they are prepared to be supportive when you broach the topic with your family.

Ultimately, we can’t change other people. Our relatives may simply continue to refuse testing and treatment despite our best intentions. We don’t have to let them off the hook completely, but we must accept they are doing the best they can. If we keep our relationships with them open and cordial, they may be willing to talk to us in the future when they are ready to get tested. To view a video of a daughter telling her parents why they should be tested, click here.

How do you politely refuse the host who insists that you drink?

Practice saying no: Often there are people at a party or event who take it as a personal insult if you do not join them and drink alcohol. You need to prepare for their rudeness and be ready to firmly say no. This can take practice, so do some role-playing if needed ahead of time. It gets easier with time.

Prepare a reason for not drinking: Sometimes, those annoying hosts, friends or relatives just won’t give up, so you may have to lie. “Sorry I’m taking medication and I can’t drink.” Or, “My stomach is upset and I want to be able to enjoy all this food.” You never have to disclose your hepatitis B infection in this casual social setting, but you can come up with another reason not to drink.

Leave the event early if you feel uncomfortable. Over the course of a party, people may get more intoxicated and it might get harder to turn down drinks. Consider leaving the party before people reach this stage, besides it’s no fun to be at a party with drunk people when you’re sober anyway.

Find others who are not drinking. Search out people who are not drinking at the event. Those are the people you may want to talk to and enjoy.

Choose a non-alcohol drink: If you’re at a bar or party, no one will know that your seltzer water with a slice of lime is not a gin and tonic. Many bars now serve non-alcoholic beverages so no one will know your drink does not contain alcohol.

The most important thing to do is to not pick up a drink no matter what. One drink all too easily leads to another. Your liver will thank you.

Kate Moraras: Making Sure Federal Policies Work to Eliminate Hepatitis B Locally

Kate Moraras, Hepatitis B Foundation senior program director and Hep B United director.
Kate Moraras, Hepatitis B Foundation senior program director and Hep B United director.

By Christine Kukka

It’s Kate Moraras’ job to make sure federal programs crafted in the elite halls and federal agencies of Capitol Hill are what’s really needed to eliminate hepatitis B in Asian-American, African and other at-risk communities across the country.

Simply put, her goal is to eradicate, “the most staggering health disparity facing immigrant communities.”

The people on whose behalf Moraras works are among the most vulnerable and powerless in the country. They include Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and African immigrants who were infected at birth or by contaminated syringes or medical tools in their countries of origin.

As senior program director at the Hepatitis B Foundation and director of the Hep B United national coalition for the past three years, Moraras has worked with federal officials and dozens of hepatitis community advocates across the country to align federal policy with the need of diverse, hard-to-reach communities.

“I have always been drawn to systems-level change and I saw public health policy as a key area where there are opportunities to make an impact,” she explained. She was energized by the prospect of finding solutions that would improve healthcare at the individual and community level, and she obtained her master in public health at George Washington University.

After graduation, Moraras learned about hepatitis B when she was working on AAPI health disparities in the federal government. “Then, my uncle found out he had chronic hepatitis B when he tried to donate blood,” she recalled. Suddenly, what had been a matter of political injustice became a personal cause and she began working at the foundation.

Moraras knows federal policies don’t succeed unless they make a difference on the streets of America. “Grassroots and culturally-focused organizations are pivotal to eradicating hepatitis B because they know their communities and how they are at risk of hepatitis B,” she explained.

Preventing and treating hepatitis B in immigrant communities requires cultural nuance. Each community has its own language, cultural practices and healthcare beliefs. Many lack insurance coverage and when they finally reach a clinic or doctor’s office, the cultural disconnect creates an insurmountable barrier to learning about this complex disease.

This is why having local organizations whose staff know the culture, speak the language and can bridge the glaring healthcare gap that now stops people from getting vaccinated and treated for hepatitis B is key. “Their communities trust them, which is so critical when it comes to navigating healthcare and communicating accurate information about hepatitis B, a disease that is stigmatized in many AAPI communities. If we want to eradicate hepatitis B in the U.S., we must partner with local organizations and make sure they have adequate resources to do the job.”

Hep B United and the foundation are working to make sure federal policy helps, rather than hinders, these vital, local initiatives.

“Fortunately, we have had champions within the federal government who have taken the opportunity to lead national efforts to address hepatitis B — for example, former Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh who led the development of the National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan and a White House Initiative tasked with specifically focusing on AAPI communities, with a cross-cutting voice and broad reach,” she said.

“CDC now has a multilingual communications campaign, the Know Hepatitis B campaign, to encourage hepatitis B testing among AAPI communities with educational materials in a variety of Asian languages,” she added. At state and local levels, there have been city councilors and state legislators who have become champions who advocate for funding for effective community programs to increase public awareness.

“What remains challenging is the disconnect between local groups providing direct services to people and federal agencies that are working to make and implement policy at the 30,000-foot level,” she said. “For example, we still do not have a national surveillance system to monitor chronic hepatitis B cases and trends and there remains an overall lack of awareness and attention to hepatitis B at the national level. We must all continue to ask for real investment by the federal government to combat hepatitis B.

“We need to build a national hepatitis B grassroots movement, which is something that I would like to see happen through my job and Hep B United in the years ahead,” she added. “We have built a strong coalition that continues to expand every year, we have powerful advocates from local communities who have taken on leadership roles in national hepatitis advocacy and I would like to see our movement continue to grow and translate to the millions of individuals we have the potential to reach.”

Hep B United is a national coalition to address and eliminate hepatitis B, a serious liver infection that is the leading cause of liver cancer.  An estimated 2 million people in the United States are chronically infected with the hepatitis B virus.  Hep B United aims to meet this public health challenge by increasing hepatitis B awareness, testing, vaccination and treatment.