Hep B Blog

Category Archives: Hepatitis B Diagnosis & Monitoring

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.

Iron Overload Affects More Than the Irish, People with Hepatitis B-Related Liver Damage Need to Be Tested

Image courtesy of zole4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of zole4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

Iron is crucial to our health, but too much iron – called iron overload – can put us at risk of liver damage and other health problems, especially if we have hepatitis B-related liver disease and/or we’re Irish.

Irish and hepatitis B are not normally two words you hear in the same sentence, but both populations may need to be careful about how much iron they eat.

  • A liver inflamed or damaged by a chronic hepatitis B infection or other causes doesn’t process or store liver effectively and the excess iron accelerates liver damage and causes a host of other medical problems.
  • If you’re Irish or of northern European ancestry, one in eight of you have a genetic predisposition for hereditary hemochromatosis (HH) – commonly called the Celtic Curse — that occurs when the body doesn’t process or store iron properly, leading to a four-fold increase in iron absorption.
  • If you’re Irish and have chronic hepatitis B, you may want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a trip to your doctor for a simple blood test for ferritin (iron) and transferrin saturation. If they’re elevated, your doctor may order a gene test to see if you have HH.

The relationship between iron overload and hepatitis B has been problematic, or as researchers like to say, “not well defined.”

Our liver is the body’s major storage organ for iron. About one-third of the iron we consume is stored in liver cells, which play a major role in recycling iron and synthesizing transferrin (the main transporting protein) and ferritin (the major storage protein) from iron.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

When our livers are damaged or inflamed from hepatitis B, the Celtic Curse, fatty liver or alcohol, they don’t synthesize iron well, leading to excessive iron deposits in the liver which leads to more liver damage, including inflammation, fibrosis and even liver cancer.  In some hepatitis C patients, iron overload was found to reduce the effectiveness of antiviral treatment in some patients.

Researchers often found elevated iron levels in hepatitis B patients and suspected chronic hepatitis B could lead to iron overload. Recently, new research has discovered it’s the inflammation or liver damage from hepatitis B that causes iron problems. People with “inactive” hepatitis B with no signs of liver damage usually do not experience iron overload.

“Our data clearly indicate that hepatitis B-related liver injury, but not direct chronic hepatitis B infection, is likely responsible for the changes in the serum iron markers,” researchers concluded in a report on this topic published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Robert Gish believes that iron overload is a “non-issue” for hepatitis B patients. However, he does have his patients get a transferrin saturation test. (A score of 20 percent indicates iron deficiency while a score exceeding 50 percent suggests iron overload.)

Many foods in our diet are rich in iron, including iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas and meat including beef, pork, poultry and seafood.

According to experts, unless we have severe liver damage (often indicated by elevated liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) or an ultrasound), we don’t need to restrict our consumption of foods rich in iron.

But if we do have liver damage and/or are Irish, it might be worth a conversation with our doctor. When we have excess iron, it is usually not detected by a complete blood count (CBC), hemoglobin, or hematocrit, test, it requires the transferrin saturation test.

Symptoms to watch for include fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, skin color changes, irregular menstrual cycles, loss of libido and impotence, bone density changes, depression, anxiety, muscle pain, brain fog, chronic diarrhea, diabetes, liver damage and headaches.

For more information on HH, visit the website of the American Hemochromatosis Society.

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.

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.

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.

Hepatitis B Foundation Launches Education Initiative for People Coinfected with Hepatitis B and D

hepc-graphicBy Sierra Pellechio

The Hepatitis B Foundation is excited to launch the Hepatitis Delta Connect program to provide education and resources for patients and families affected by hepatitis D, the most aggressive form of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis D infection requires the presence of the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), so only people already infected with hepatitis B can become infected with hepatitis D.

There is a large gap in knowledge and awareness about this virus, and the foundation is working to provide easily-accessible information and support to those in need.

Because the hepatitis D virus (HDV) is acquired only if a hepatitis B infection is present, it can be effectively prevented through hepatitis B vaccination. While hepatitis D is not common in the United States, worldwide it affects 15-20 million people.

Areas with the highest rates of hepatitis D infection rate include China, Russia, the Middle East, Mongolia, Romania, Georgia, Turkey, Pakistan, Africa and the Amazonian river basin. It is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood and bodily fluids, and most commonly affects high-risk groups such as intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men or have multiple sexual partners, and people emigrating from countries where hepatitis D is common.

Hepatitis D can be acquired either through coinfection (becoming infected with hepatitis D and B at the same time) or a super-infection (becoming infected with hepatitis D after a person has hepatitis B). A coinfection generally resolves spontaneously after about six months, but it can sometimes result in life-threatening or fatal liver failure. Like hepatitis B, hepatitis D may not present with any symptoms, so getting a simple blood test is the only way to know if you are infected.

Hepatitis B Foundation Health Outreach Coordinator Sierra Pellechio
Hepatitis B Foundation Health Outreach Coordinator Sierra Pellechio

Treatment options are limited, but pegylated interferon has shown some effectiveness in a small percentage of patients (less than 30 percent). The good news is that there are five promising drugs currently in clinical trials. Visit our HDV Drug Watch and Clinical Trials page for more information about these drugs. We at the Hepatitis B Foundation appreciate the support of Eiger Biopharmaceuticals to help launch this valuable patient-focused program.

Hepatitis D is a complicated virus, and for this reason, it is very important for patients to find a knowledgeable liver specialist (or hepatologist) who can provide the best care and management.

The most important message for those living with hepatitis B is to get a simple blood test to find out if they have hepatitis D if they believe they are at risk. There are promising new treatments that could help prevent the serious complications related to a hepatitis B and D coinfection.

As the coordinator of Hepatitis Delta Connect, I am thrilled about this opportunity to help create a resource for patients who are living with hepatitis D. My experience in health literacy and community outreach blend with my commitment to support those in need, allowing me to promote the project in ways that will help raise the visibility of hepatitis D and let the 15-20 million infected people know that they are not alone.

In addition to our website, please email questions to connect@hepdconnect.org follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@hepbdconnect) to join the global conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.

Why Raised Voices, Phone Calls and Letter Writing Are Critical to Eradicate Hepatitis B

2013-05-17_HepbUnitedEventBy Christine Kukka

Getting the medical care we need requires advocacy, because in the U.S. the quality of our healthcare–and even how long we live–depends on our income, ethnicity, gender and where we live. That is especially true when we live with hepatitis B.

Many affected by hepatitis B are not endowed with money, privilege or political power. Most of us are immigrants and people of African and Asian descent. This infection illuminates our country’s racial divides in healthcare. Asian-Americans, for example, have liver cancer rates 13-times higher than white Americans because they were never tested for hepatitis B, diagnosed or treated until it was too late.

Many of us are gay or injecting drug users. We are often uninsured or under-insured, which leaves us unable to pay for testing or treatment.

Our doctors, who often work in healthcare systems focused more on the bottom line than patient care, see too many patients in too little time. They may not know to screen us for hepatitis B, or monitor us properly and refer us for treatment when the infection damages our livers.

Despite good intentions, we live with a broken healthcare system and like any political system it requires the actions of patients, voters and advocacy organizations to improve.

Participants Perform a B A Hero Chant
Participants Perform a B A Hero Chant

The Hepatitis B Foundation and national coalitions including Hep B United are working within the political system to make healthcare more equitable and accountable.  They’re fighting to get more funding so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Health have more resources to eradicate hepatitis B. Recently, these advocates scored a victory. Continue reading "Why Raised Voices, Phone Calls and Letter Writing Are Critical to Eradicate Hepatitis B"

You’ve Lost the Hepatitis B Surface Antigen, Go Celebrate, But Keep Monitoring

By Christine Kukka

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

After years of living with “inactive’ chronic hepatitis B—with low viral load and no signs of liver damage–some patients may finally lose the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and even develop surface antibodies.

This event merits a celebration and a huge sigh of relief, but if you think you will never have to get another blood draw or worry about your liver, think again. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but hepatitis B really never goes away.

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

Think herpes, mono, or chicken pox and shingles. Children infected with chickenpox get rid of the infection and the ugly blisters, but very small amounts of the chickenpox (varicella) virus remains in the spinal nerves. As we grow older and our immune systems weaken with age,  our bodies aren’t able to suppress the varicella virus any more and it reactivates, causing painful shingles.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) behaves in the same way. When we lose HBsAg and even develop surface antibodies (anti-HBs), there are still HBV lurking in our livers. When we’re healthy, our immune systems suppress the virus and prevent any reactivation, but old age or another disease or medical condition can weaken our bodies and allow the viral infection to reactivate.

So, even after we clear HBsAg, we need to stay vigilant and continue to get our liver health monitored regularly. Here is what you need to know:

First, what are my chances of ever getting rid of HBsAg and developing the surface antibody? It can happen, especially in older adults after a long period of “inactive” hepatitis B infection.

About 1 to 3 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B lose HBsAg each year, and about half of all people with chronic infections who live up to age 75 will lose HBsAg, depending on the amount of HBV DNA in their blood.

Your chances of losing HBsAg and developing the surface antibody increase if you have a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and obesity (fatty liver). Another report found that people with the hepatitis B strain or genotype C have higher rates of clearing HBsAg over time than those with genotype B.

Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once you clear HBsAg, the chance of developing surface antibodies over the next two, five and 10 years are 24 percent, 58 percent and 78 percent respectively, according to a recent report in the September 2016 journal of Epidemiology and Infection.

After I clear HBsAg, how often do I need to get my liver health monitored? According to Dr. Robert Gish, medical director of the Hepatitis B Foundation and professor consultant of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University, once you have cleared HBsAg, 12 months later you need to:

  • Check all of your liver enzymes and liver function
  • Get your platelet count and hepatitis B blood tests done, and
  • Have an ultrasound of your liver and spleen.

These tests become your new “baseline” that your doctor can refer too in the years ahead while monitoring your liver health.

Your baseline ultrasound should examine your liver and measure its portal vein (it should be under 12 mm) and spleen (it should be under 12 cm) to make sure it’s normal with no signs of cirrhosis or portal hypertension.

If you had cirrhosis before you cleared HBsAg: You need to be surveyed for liver cancer (with an ultrasound, alpha fetoprotein (AFP) blood test and a Des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin (DCP) test) every six months for at least five years, because cirrhosis puts you at high risk of liver cancer. Once an ultrasound finds no evidence of cirrhosis and all other tests are normal, including the cancer tests, then the testing can become less frequent and your doctor can prescribe a new monitoring schedule.

If you’ve had elevated liver enzymes (called ALT or SGPT) in the past, (higher than 19 in women and 30 in men), you need to continue to get tested every six months until you’ve had two consecutive healthy ALT readings. If your ALT remains elevated, make sure you are not drinking alcohol and do not have fatty liver disease. Talk to your doctor about a new monitoring schedule.

Tell all of your current and future doctors you’ve had hepatitis B, and beware of immune-suppressing drugs used to treat various cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Our immune systems, which are working to keep the residual HBV in our bodies in check, can also take a hit from medications that deliberately suppress our immune systems in order to fight cancer, psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.

According to medical guidelines, all oncologists and other specialists who use these powerful drugs are supposed to test all  their patients for hepatitis B and carefully monitor anyone who had hepatitis B in the past, which is indicated by a positive test for the hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc).

Even if you’ve cleared HBsAg, doctors may pre-emptively treat you with antivirals during and after your treatment for cancer, immune disorders such as arthritis or psoriasis, and hepatitis C and monitor your HBsAg and viral load regularly to make sure your hepatitis B does not reactivate.

These screening guidelines exist, but no one is perfect and your oncologist may not know you’ve been infected, may forget to screen you for hepatitis B, or may not understand the testing. So, tell everyone if you have an active or resolved hepatitis B infection. The last thing you want is to be battling both cancer and a reactivated hepatitis B infection simultaneously.

While hepatitis B never really goes away, once you clear HBsAg your risk of liver damage and liver cancer diminish tremendously. It’s worth a celebration, but you need to continue to be monitored as you age.

Advocates Raise Awareness About African Immigrants’ High Risk of Hepatitis B

Volunteers at Boston's National African Immigrant and Refugee HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis Awareness Day
Volunteers at Boston’s National African Immigrant and Refugee HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis Awareness Day

By Christine Kukka

For years, public health advocates have struggled to educate both doctors and Asian-Americans about the high risk of hepatitis B that this ethnic group faces. It’s been a slow, uphill battle marked by moderate success.

Despite the fact that one in 12 Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) is chronically infected with hepatitis B, more than two-thirds of them haven’t been screened and don’t know they’re infected.

But another group of immigrants and their children—from Sub-Saharan Africa—are also at high risk of hepatitis B and have received even less attention from public health advocates and the medical community across the U.S.

Of foreign-born U.S. residents with hepatitis B, about 58 percent are AAPIs and 11 percent come from Africa. In the past 20 years, the number of immigrants–primarily from war-torn Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt–have increased more than 750 percent. There are now 1.6 million African immigrants in the U.S. and 10 percent are believed to be infected with chronic hepatitis B.

In the largest study of its kind, 955 African-born residents living in New York City were screened for hepatitis B between 2011 and 2013. Doctors found 74 percent had been infected with hepatitis B in the past, and 9.6 percent had current, chronic or long-term infections.

Ponni V. Perumalswami, MD, director of the Hepatitis Outreach Network (HONE) at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City
Ponni V. Perumalswami, MD, director of the Hepatitis Outreach Network (HONE) at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City

“I believe African immigrants have been underserved by our healthcare system,” observed Ponni V. Perumalswami, MD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Hepatitis Outreach Network (HONE) at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and lead researcher of the New York City study. “Similar to Asian-Americans, African immigrants are often not screened or referred to treatment. Additionally, many at-risk African immigrants are not currently engaged in health care and have struggled to access medical care in our communities.”

Healthcare providers have struggled for decades to provide the resources and culturally-competent care needed to screen, immunize and refer infected AAPIs for treatment; now they must develop new strategies to reach African immigrant communities. These communities, found in large cities such as Atlanta and New York and in small towns such as Lewiston, Maine, have a wide array of distinct cultures, healthcare practices and languages.

A young Somali refugee. Courtesy of USAID (USAID) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
A young Somali refugee. Courtesy of USAID (USAID) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Like their AAPI counterparts, many African immigrants lack access to any healthcare, let alone culturally-competent medical care that is trusted and embraced. “There is clearly a healthcare disparity with respect to the large burden of hepatitis B disease in this community, however very little research has been done to identify these gaps and develop successful interventions to bridge them,” Perumalswami explained.

She is now testing a group education program—called the Hepatitis Outreach NEtwork (HONE)–that could be adapted nationwide to raise awareness about hepatitis B. HONE enlists local public health agencies, community organizations, health care providers and community leaders to reach African immigrant communities. She also recommends using patient navigators from each immigrant African ethnic group to help people get screened, immunized and into treatment. “Not every person needs a patient navigator, but they can be very effective in getting some people screened and those infected linked to care,” she said

But for many, this outreach is too little too late. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for me to see patients who have been silently infected for decades with advanced liver cancer or suffering from complications of liver failure when we diagnose their hepatitis B infection for the first time,” she said.

That lack of screening and treatment continues to haunt AAPI communities. Vietnamese-American men whose infections were not diagnosed until it was too late make up a large percentage of people with liver cancer in the U.S.

Courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s particularly troubling as we have a highly effective vaccine to

prevent hepatitis B and highly effective treatments to decrease the risk of liver cancer and liver disease progression,” Perumalswami commented.

In an effort to raise awareness about hepatitis B and C and HIV in the African immigrant community, a coalition of organizations, including the Hepatitis B Foundation and Hep B United, and local and national groups are supporting National African Immigrant and Refugee HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis Awareness Day (NAIRHAA Day) on Sept. 9.

A Twitter chat exploring ways to raise awareness among African immigrants in the U.S. is scheduled for 2 p.m. (EST) Tuesday, Sept. 13. Use hashtag  #AIHHchat

For more information about NAIRHAA, including webinar training for healthcare providers and public health officials, please explore the following:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NAIRHHA

Twitter: @NAIRHHADay

Thunderclap: http://thndr.it/1IQC4TB

Webinar training on Improving Hepatitis B Screening and Care Among African Immigrants (June 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixyelHdVPh4

Webinar 1 (Epidemiology)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWYGgyNSIK8

Webinar 2 (HIV)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0LOybRvjNw

Webinar 3 (Hepatitis B) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g47Dm3rV4-Y

For more information, contact Siede Slopadoe, lead organizer for NAIRHAA Day, at sslopadoe@mac-boston.org