Hep B Blog

Category Archives: Hepatitis B Treatment

When Can Hepatitis B Patients Stop Taking Antivirals? Experts Finally Have Some Answers

Image courtesy of foto76 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of foto76 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

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).

Image courtesy of Taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

 *The statistics and recommendations cited are found at EASL2017 Clinical Practice Guidelines.

The Terrible Price Paid When Doctors Fail to Test and Treat Patients for Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of Janpen04081986 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Janpen04081986 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

The day we arrived home from China, my husband and I brought our four-month-old adopted daughter to a pediatrician for a check-up. The doctor looked at my daughter’s health records from China, saw she had tested negative for hepatitis B, and said, “Good, I don’t have to test her for that.”

About a year later, I got sick, very sick. I felt nauseous, my stomach hurt and I felt bone tired. I gradually recovered and chalked it up to a bad case of flu.

When my daughter was 2 years old, I read on an adoption email list that some children were testing positive for hepatitis B stateside, though their medical reports in China had given them a clean bill of health. During her next check-up, I asked the pediatrician to test her for hepatitis B. The test result came back positive. A week later, so did mine.

My daughter had chronic hepatitis B, and I, who had donated blood regularly until I became a busy parent, had  an acute case, and cleared the infection. Our story, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Across the U.S., many primary care doctors fail to test at-risk patients for hepatitis B.

I live in a rural, New England state where there are not many people from countries with high rates of hepatitis B. Our pediatrician didn’t know that it can take several weeks after exposure  for an infection to show up in a lab test. She didn’t know that China’s medical records weren’t reliable. She knows it now, but many providers still don’t.

Over the years, I have heard many similar stories with worse outcomes. In one case, a young woman born in South Korea suffered epilepsy and her doctor treated her with a common seizure medication without first screening her for liver infection or damage. She died in her early 20s from liver cancer. The epilepsy drug accelerated her hepatitis B-related liver disease.

A recent article published on the Monthly Prescribing Reference website, describes how a primary care provider was sued for malpractice after he failed to monitor a patient for liver damage despite the fact the Asian-American patient told him he had hepatitis B in his teens. The patient, who was treated by the doctor for more than 15 years, died from liver cancer resulting from untreated hepatitis B.

In addition to these stories, there are numerous studies published in medical journals that show doctors often fail to test patients for hepatitis B or treat them appropriately when hepatitis B is diagnosed. Even liver experts who should know better often don’t follow medical guidelines that recommend antiviral treatment for hepatitis B-related liver damage.

I often wonder why there is this breakdown in hepatitis B care. I wonder if it stems from racism or prejudice. Many people with hepatitis B are people of color, recent immigrants, gay, or low-income. These patients can be challenging for doctors, especially when providers have little experience with hepatitis B, but that’s no excuse.

Over the years, I have accompanied my daughter to her medical appointments and often remind doctors what labs they should order and what the latest monitoring guidelines are. The best of them admit they don’t know how to treat hepatitis B and sit down and read the latest guidelines and discuss a care plan with my daughter. The worse simply do whatever I ask, and I am no doctor.

martin luther king blue I have found one of the best tools available  are software programs that link a patient’s electronic medical record to current medical guidelines. It makes it easy for doctors to know what tests should be ordered, especially if they have never treated hepatitis B before. But they need to have the software and the desire to use it.

I appreciate that doctors are human, over-worked and are driven by an assembly line business model that makes it hard to pause and research a new medical condition. However, the human price paid for lapses in care is terrible, and far more costly considering the expense of treating liver cancer, compared to running the right tests and prescribing the correct antiviral treatment today.

In the U.S., about two-thirds of people living with chronic hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. They don’t have the money, the insurance coverage, or access to the right doctors who will test and treat them, and make sure their family members are tested and vaccinated. An estimated 20 percent of these people will die prematurely from liver disease. And today, as I listen to the news, I am afraid it’s only going to get worse.

How to Find a Liver Specialist Who Really Knows Hepatitis B

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

By Christine Kukka

If you have chronic hepatitis B or are newly-diagnosed, it’s important to see a liver specialist who has experience with hepatitis B.

Having a specialist with hepatitis B expertise on your team not only safeguards your health, it also lessens the stress of having a chronic liver disease. “My specialist gave me all the possible scenarios, but most importantly, he gave me my life back,” one hepatitis B patient recalled.

When first diagnosed, it’s often a primary health provider (PCP) or for children a pediatrician who gets the test results and calls to break the news. Doctors may run additional blood tests and/or immediately refer you to a liver specialist. They may recommend a specialist who accepts your insurance or practices in the same healthcare system, but you may have to do some research to find the best specialist to treat your hepatitis B.

There are two types of specialists who treat liver diseases:

  • A gastroenterologist is an internist who has trained in digestive disorders including the liver, but how much liver expertise a gastroenterologist (GI doctor) has varies based on their training. It’s important to find out if they specialize in liver diseases.
  • A hepatologist is a physician who specializes in the liver. This doctor has the most expertise and should be up-to-date about new treatments and clinical trials. But not all hepatologists have treated hepatitis B. Many will have treated hepatitis C, but not hepatitis B, so you need to ask.

Tips for finding a specialist:

  • Are they in the Hepatitis B Foundation directory? The foundation has a Physician Directory of liver specialists who treat hepatitis B around the world. These doctors have voluntarily signed up  for the database. It is not an exhaustive list, there may be hepatitis B specialists in your area who have not yet joined the directory.
  • Call the practice ahead of time and ask questions. How many hepatitis B patients have they treated? Do they participate in any clinical trials?  Are they aware of current monitoring and treatment guidelines for hepatitis B?
  • What’s the doctor’s reputation? Does anyone in your community see a liver specialist for viral hepatitis? Whom do they recommend?
  • Will you actually see the specialist or an assistant? Do you see a specialist only if there is a need for treatment? If you go to a teaching hospital, do you see the doctor or an intern, fellow or resident?

You are entering into a long-term relationship with someone who may care for you for many years. You need their expertise, but you also need to feel comfortable working with them. Do they listen when you speak and make eye contact? Trust and rapport are very critical.

“It’s really important that they don’t judge me,” one hepatitis B patient explained.  Another patient said that finding a doctor who spoke his language, or had an assistant who was fluent in his language, helped immensely.

Once you identify a specialist, here are some questions to ask:

  • Is the specialist accepting new patients? How long do you have to wait to get an appointment?
  • What hospital or lab do they use, and are they convenient for you? It’s important for you to always use the same lab so you have consistent results that allow apples-to-apples comparisons.
  • Will the doctor call you with the results or will a nurse or other assistant communicate with you?
  • What would you like your care plan to be? Will you go for blood tests and then see the specialist? Typically, hepatitis B patients get blood tests once or twice a year to monitor their liver, unless they are undergoing treatment.

How to design a long-distance care plan if the specialist is far away:  Sometimes, the best hepatitis B specialist is a few hours-drive from where you live, but distance doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Many people see a specialist for a first visit, and afterwards simply have their PCPs or local labs email lab results to the specialist. For this remote healthcare relationship to work, your PCP needs to be willing to partner with the specialist. Also, your specialist needs to be open to telephone consultations with you as needed.

Technology matters. Sharing medical records and lab tests electronically make a remote relationship work smoothly. If there are firewalls between practices, find out how to ensure your PCP and specialist share your medical records. Be prepared, you may have to be the conduit if the two healthcare systems don’t talk to each other.

Insurance and cost: Ideally, the hepatitis B specialist closest to you accepts your insurance or is in your provider network. That doesn’t always happen so finding out the charges in advance is important.

  • Will the specialist bill your insurance or will you need to pay the fee upfront and manage the insurance reimbursement yourself?
  • How much do you have to pay out-of-pocket if the specialist is outside your network, or if you are not insured? Some specialists charge a lower fee to uninsured patients. You may be able to have an annual consultation with a specialist and bring your lab results.

One hepatitis B patient reported he was not entirely happy with the specialist his PCP referred him to. “At the time, I had great insurance so all the tests he ordered weren’t a lot of money out-of-pocket,” he said. “But then I changed jobs and I couldn’t afford all of his tests, and he wanted me to go on treatment though my lab reports didn’t justify it.

“I went looking for a new one and found one in the Hepatitis B Foundation’s website,” he said. “I had to drive farther to see him, but his knowledge and patience were very comforting and he spoke my primary language. He really helped me regain confidence in life. ”

Prepare for your visit: Before you see the specialist, put together a list of questions (see sample questions) and have your lab reports available — either bring hard copies or call ahead of time to make sure the doctor has access to your latest labs and medical records.

After you meet with your specialist, take some time to reflect. Are you happy with the doctor? Did he or she communicate well? Are you clear about what you need to do in the weeks and months ahead to take charge of your health? If the answer is yes, congratulations, you have assembled a good healthcare team.

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 HBsAg quantities in blood samples and late last year became available in the U.S. as a federally-approved (CLIA) lab test from Quest Diagnostics.

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.

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.

Be Brave: Join a Hepatitis B Clinical Trial and Help Find a Cure

Photo courtesy of CDC.
Photo courtesy of CDC.

By Christine Kukka

One of the bravest things people living with hepatitis B can do is participate in a clinical trial  to help find the drug that will one day eradicate the virus that infects more than 240 million worldwide.

There are medical and financial advantages to participating in a trial. We may gain access to a drug that is more effective than what is currently available. We may get free lab tests and medications, and we know we have helped millions of others in the pursuit of a cure.

For example, if you participate in the Hepatitis B Research Network Adult Cohort Study, which is currently collecting data on how hepatitis B affects in 2,500 people in the U.S. and Canada over a five-year period, you helps scientists better understand this disease while getting free annual liver tests.

There are different types of clinical trials, for example some compare the effectiveness of a new drug against current treatments. When TAF, a new formulation of tenofovir, was in clinical trials, one group of patients received TAF and the other received the standard tenofovir drug. Researchers then compared viral loads (HBV DNA) and liver health from the two groups to see if TAF was as effective as tenofovir in lowering viral load and reducing the risk of liver damage.

Other drug trials compare the effectiveness of a new drug against no treatment. In this double-blind study, a control group receives no treatment (a placebo – or sugar pill) and the other group gets the experimental drug. Researchers don’t know until the end of the study which participants received the experimental drug in order to achieve an objective view of a drug’s effectiveness.

Clinical trials are also used to test the accuracy of new monitoring equipment or approaches, or they can help define what screening practices work best in individual immigrant communities.

Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.
Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.

They can also assess the effectiveness of herbal supplements and vitamin D in reducing liver damage or help identify when a pregnant woman should receive antivirals to lower her risk of infecting her newborn.

There are drawbacks to clinical trials that participants need to know. While pharmaceutical companies have spent years developing new drugs and testing them in lab animals before they reach human clinical trials, some drugs will not work.

A recent example of this is the Arrowhead Pharmaceutical’s ARC 520, 521 and AAT drugs, which were in clinical trials on 300 people in 17 countries. Last month, Arrowhead halted the trials after test animals that were receiving much higher doses of the drug died.

And, some trial participants risk getting the placebo instead of the experimental drug. In many of these cases, if the “experimental” drug is successful, those who received the placebo eventually gain access to the new drug. Also, these trials take commitment, including your time, travel and perseverance. But one day, these trials will help find a cure, but it can’t happen without the help of people living with hepatitis B.

How do we find a clinical trial? Most hepatitis B trials are managed by clinical researchers who work at universities, large hospitals or pharmaceutical companies. But you do not have to be a patient at one of these institutes to participate in a trial.

Step 1: Talk to your provider at your clinic, primary care office or liver treatment center and tell them you’re interested in participating in a trial. If you find one you think you’d qualify for, show them the information. Your provider can refer you to a trial even if he or she isn’t participating directly in the trial.

Step 2: Your provider can contact the research center on your behalf, submit an intake form for you, and transfer your patient records after you complete a HIPAA form. Your provider can still continue to care for you even if you join a trial.

Step 3: If you qualify, you may have to travel to the research center at least once. After that, your blood tests and any other lab results can be performed locally and sent to the researchers.

Step 4: Do your research before you participate. Ask questions and make sure you understand how the trial will affect your health. If there’s a chance you’ll get the placebo pill, ask what will happen and if you get access to the drug later on. Make sure you get the information in your primary language and that trial doctors are culturally-sensitive. Trust and knowledge is essential.

Below are some resources to help you. If you need more information, contact the foundation at 215-489-4900 (U.S.) or email info@hepb.org.

Where to find a clinical trial

  • Hepatitis B Foundation’s directory  of hepatitis B-related clinical trials: This resource lists hepatitis B-related clinical trials registered with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. These include hepatitis B-related treatment and liver cancer trials for adults and children in the U.S. and around the world. They also include coinfections, hepatitis D and trials investigating ways to prevent mother-to-children transmission of hepatitis B during childbirth. You can also email the foundation for more information at info@hepb.org.
  • The U.S. National Institutes of Health directory of clinical trials. This is a searchable directory of all NIH-approved clinical trials. You can search by condition and location.
  • Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation: This offers a clinical trial database you can search, and the organization will also help you find clinical trials and email or mail you the information.  Call 877-MED HERO. Allow one to two weeks for response.

To watch a webinar about how to participate in a clinical trial, click here.

Family Getting Together for The Holidays? Time to Talk Hepatitis B and Your Family’s Health History

Image courtesy of Apolonia at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Apolonia at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

When we have chronic hepatitis B, knowing our family medical history can give us an inside edge to fight this infection.

Hepatitis B is an infection that often runs in families. Knowing how our parents, grandparents and aunts/uncles responded to this liver disease can give us insider information about our own genetic prospects with hepatitis B.

Experts estimate that more than half of us worldwide became infected at birth. Our mothers may have been infected with hepatitis B. Immunization, which can prevent infection if administered within 12 hours of birth, was not available to us as newborns, nor to our mothers or grandmothers.

So if we suspect or know our parents have or had hepatitis B, it’s important to find out if our aunts and uncles or grandparents were also infected and had signs of liver damage. Did anyone get liver cancer or die from liver-related problems? Or, did our relatives live long lives due to strong genes, healthy lifestyle choices, and avoiding smoking and alcohol?

Knowing how our genetic predecessors handled this infection gives clues about:

  • How often we should be screened for liver cancer? We should be screened earlier and more often if we have a family history of cancer.
  • How soon should we start treatment? If our predecessors had liver damage at a young age, perhaps we should start treatment sooner rather than wait and endure long periods of liver damage and high viral loads.
  • How effective are our family’s genes in fighting this infection? Did many family members with hepatitis B have liver damage or cancer, or did they have relatively long and healthy lives?
  • What effect did the hepatitis B virus’ strain or genotype play? Depending on the HBV genotype that infects us, we may have different experiences with hepatitis B. We may we develop the hepatitis B “e” antibody earlier if we have certain HBV genotypes. Knowing our relatives’ health history gives us some insight into this.
  • What effect does gender play? Did women experience liver damage or did it only happen to men? The female hormone estrogen is believed to confer some protection against hepatitis B. It may be that men in your family are at highest risk of liver damage and need more frequent monitoring and earlier treatment.
Image courtesy of jk1991 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of jk1991 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

There are other factors besides genes that affect a multi-generational experience of hepatitis B. Did our grandparent who developed liver cancer suffer poor nutrition for extended periods in their country of origin that weakened their immune system? Did the uncle who had cirrhosis also smoke, drink or suffer exposure to chemicals at work? Could a grandparent who died of liver disease eat moldy rice or corn that contained aflatoxin, which severely damages the liver?

Taken together, all of these factors give us clues to medical conditions that may run in our families, and this knowledge isn’t limited to just hepatitis B. By identifying family patterns of medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or breast cancers, healthcare providers can determine if we and our children are at increased risk of a particular condition.

Because knowing your family’s health history is such a powerful tool, the Surgeon General created a free website to help everyone create a portrait of their family’s health at My Family Health Portrait.

After completing the questions, the website creates a personalized “family health tree” that can be saved to a home computer. From there, families may update the information any time. The tool can be shared with other family members, who can add their health information to the portrait. It’s also important to share this portrait with your doctor.

The Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family Health History Day. But whenever your family gathers for a holiday, ask about their medical history. It just might save your life.

Global Researchers Brainstorm Solutions in the Search for a Cure for Hepatitis B


Shop Carefully for Lowest-Cost Hepatitis B Drugs When Signing Up for Medicare by Dec 7

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

With the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs soaring, it’s important for people age 65 and older who live with hepatitis B to shop for Medicare coverage carefully before they sign up by Dec. 7, especially if they need costly antivirals and frequent lab tests.

As we age, our immune system weakens and loses its ability to suppress our hepatitis B infection. We may notice a gradual rise in our viral load (HBV DNA) and/or our liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT), which indicate liver damage.

We may also experience other medical conditions, such as cancer or arthritis that require immune-suppressing drugs that unfortunately enable our hepatitis B to reactivate. To lower our viral load and reduce the risk of liver damage, we’ll need antivirals, and they’re not cheap. Medicare recipients must shop carefully for the most affordable plan. Here are the three key Medicare coverage areas:

Part A is free. It covers most of hospital and nursing home care, however you still pay for some deductibles and copays. For example, if you go to a hospital for a liver biopsy, you will pay a portion of that cost if you only have Part A.

Part B covers doctor visits and lab tests, and it costs about $150 a month and increases based on your income. There is a deductible of $166 a year and you pay a 20 percent copay for many services. Instead of selecting Part B, you may instead choose a private or employer-sponsored Medicare advantage plan.

Part D covers your drug costs and it’s optional, but if you’re on antivirals, interferon or other medications, it important that you have drug coverage under this or a Medicare Advantage plan (such as HMOs or PPOs) that cover all Medicare benefits including drugs. If you have a low income, you may be eligible for assistance to help pay for your Part D plan.

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It is critical that you shop around before selecting a drug plan. Just like the Affordable Care Act’s Health Exchange, there will be fewer drug programs available to you to choose from this fall. You also need to make sure your plan:

  • Has your specialist or primary care doctor and lab in its network, and
  • Offers the lowest copay for the drugs you need.

When you shop for a Medicare Part D drug plan: You select from plans based on where you live and what drugs you take. For example, if you’re shopping for a drug plan to cover tenofovir (Viread), plan prices can vary by more than $1,000 a year. Comparison shopping is critical!

To find a plan, go to Medicare Plan Finder and enter your zip code and select the drugs you expect to take during 2017. It’s a good idea to sit down with someone who can help you during your search or call a Medicare representative at 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) as you search online.

The drug plans have different pricing tiers for prescription drugs, a simple generic antibiotic can be less expensive Tier 1 or 2 drug, while a brand name drug like tenofovir can be a more costly Tier 4 or 5 drug.  Without Part D drug coverage, a year’s supply of tenofovir could cost about $12,880 a year. Before you select a plan, here are some suggestions:

Check the fine print: Make a list of all of your medications and check how much each plan reimburses for each. Search for any “hidden extras” you’ll have to pay if you’re using a brand name or specialty drug. Some plans have separate, high copays for brand-name and specialty drugs, which can include hepatitis B drugs.

If you need a brand-name maintenance drug (like tenofovir) that isn’t available as a generic yet, you may want to focus only on plans that have the lowest co-pay for that drug. Your other drug needs may be less expensive, generic cholesterol- or blood pressuring-lowering medication.

Consider both the monthly premium and the copay. You must consider both costs when searching for the best plan.

Does the plan require you to use a specific pharmacy? An increasing number of plans require you to use a preferred pharmacy, or even a mail-order option. Factor in convenience and your premium and copay.

Can you get discounts because of your income? You may be eligible to get all or part of your Medicare premiums, deductibles or co-payments covered if you have limited income and resources. Individuals with incomes less than $17,820 and assets less than $13,640, and couples with incomes less than $24,030 and assets less than $27,250, qualify for subsidies. You also may qualify, even if your income is higher, if you support other family members who live with you. Call Social Security at 800-772-1213 for information.

The good news: The dreaded “doughnut hole” or the gap during which you must pay a higher percentage of your drug costs, continues to shrink next year and will be completely phased out in 2020.

Even if you’re happy with what you had last year, do your research: Kaiser Foundation research found only 10 percent of Medicare enrollees switched plans between 2007 and 2014. Those who switched on average saved about $16 a month just on premiums. It pays to shop around.

Like your doctor? Make sure he/she is in your provider networks: Advantage plans can shuffle their provider and hospital networks each year. And their provider lists may not be included in Medicare’s online Plan Finder or the basic plan documents.

Contact your plan and ask for their 2017 provider directory before making a decision. Check if specialty facilities like university-based teaching medical centers are included. Or, call your physician and ask if they will be in the plan you’re considering — and, if not, where they’re going. And be aware: While doctors can leave a plan in the middle of a year, you typically can’t.