One of the biggest health threats to people living with chronic hepatitis B is a toxic, nearly invisible mold called aflatoxin found in corn, peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts and pistachios.
People with hepatitis B who eat food with high levels of aflatoxins face a liver cancer risk that is 60-times above average.
How far are we from finding a cure for hepatitis B? We are close, said Timothy Block, PhD, president and co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation and its research arm, the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute. He points out that hepatitis C, once thought to be incurable, is today cured with new combination treatments.
Experts believe a cure for hepatitis B will also soon be developed. And the need for a cure has never been greater, with more than 240 million people worldwide living with chronic hepatitis B, causing 1 million deaths per year from related liver failure and liver cancer.
“Treatments are available,” explained Block, “but we have become a little too comfortable with the medications that are currently approved for use.” While these drugs are effective, interferon has many side effects and daily antivirals require lifelong use. These drugs work in only half of the infected population and reduce death rates by only about 40 to 70 percent.
What will a cure look like?
The available antivirals are similar and combining them offers no advantage. They have limited effectiveness against cccDNA, the seemingly indestructible “mini-chromosome” of the hepatitis B virus that continues to produce virus particles in infected liver cells, even in people being treated. A cure, therefore, would have to destroy or silence cccDNA and provide long-term immunity. Because one-drug treatments can lead to drug resistance, a cure would almost certainly involve combination therapy, similar to hepatitis C. Continue reading "Is a Cure for Hepatitis B Coming? Experts Say Yes"→
In 1914, the United States designated the second Sunday in May as “Mothers’ Day.” Its founder, Anna Jarvis, hoped the holiday would focus on her own mother’s work promoting peace and public health. Years later, Jarvis protested loudly when the holiday became better known for sentimentality and greeting card sales.
Our nation often loses sight of a holiday’s original intent, but this Mother’s Day we can bring back the goal of preserving public health, especially where it concerns mothers and infectious diseases.
Decades ago, researchers developed one of the most extraordinary life-saving vaccines–hepatitis B immunization. It saves lives in two ways: It protects children and adults from infection and it breaks the vicious cycle of mother-to-child infection. A baby born to a hepatitis B-infected almost always becomes infected. The vaccine, administered within hours of birth, breaks that cycle.
When the vaccine debuted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most people with chronic hepatitis B had been infected at birth. When newborns and children are infected, their immune systems don’t recognize or attack the virus and the infection can continue indefinitely.
To stop this infection cycle, today all pregnant women are screened for hepatitis B. Babies born to infected women are immediately vaccinated and treated with HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies). This public health initiative has been extremely successful in dramatically reducing hepatitis B. However, the campaign’s focus has been primarily on newborns and the hepatitis B-infected mothers were often forgotten. Though hepatitis B infections had been identified, the infected mothers were often lost to follow-up, and this neglect continues today. Continue reading "Celebrate Mothers’ Day with High-Quality Healthcare First, Sentimentality Second"→
May is Hepatitis Awareness month. Why do we need an annual reminder about hepatitis B? Because 65 percent of the estimated 2.2 million people in the U.S. living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected.
Studies show when people know their hepatitis B status, they’re more likely to get monitored regularly, get treatment, and take steps to avoid passing on the disease to partners and their children.
So why are so many Americans unaware of their hepatitis B infection? Here are five roadblocks that stop us from getting tested for hepatitis B, and what how we can do to overcome them.
Liver cancer, caused by hepatitis B and C, is on the rise in the U.S. and it is also the second deadliest. Fewer than 15 percent of patients with liver cancer will survive five years after their diagnosis. It is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths among Asian-Americans and the eighth-leading cause of cancer deaths among Caucasian-Americans.
Despite this bleak outlook, there are people with liver cancer who are beating the odds and surviving. The medical community is also working hard to develop new drugs and effective strategies to treat liver cancer. Here is one survivor’s story.
By Frank Gardea
In late 2008, during routine testing before surgery, I found out I had hepatitis C and liver cirrhosis. It was a double whammy because having both viral hepatitis and cirrhosis put me at high risk for liver cancer.
The majority of people infected with hepatitis B lead healthy and normal lives. However, a small number of people may develop liver disease that will dramatically affect their quality of life and their ability to work on a short-term or long-term basis.
They may not be able to work for several weeks because of side effects from pegylated interferon treatment, or progressive liver damage could make it impossible to work and support themselves and their families even after treatment.
To prevent liver damage and cirrhosis and reduce the risk of liver cancer–especially in older patients who’ve had hepatitis B for decades–doctors often prescribe long-term antiviral treatment. But some antivirals cause minor bone loss, which poses a problem for older patients with osteoporosis.
According to experts, the risk of bone loss from long-term antiviral treatment is low, and in fact some antivirals do not cause any bone loss at all. But if you are starting antivirals at an older age, or if you have been on antivirals long-term, experts recommend you monitor your potassium and vitamin D levels and regularly test for bone loss in the hip area so you know if you are experiencing bone loss and need a calcium or vitamin D supplement. Continue reading "Taking Antivirals Long-Term for Hepatitis B? Should You Worry About Bone Loss?"→
If you have been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B, your doctor has probably run several blood tests that show if the infection is harming your liver and identify what stage of infection you are in. Doctors consider all of these results when deciding if you need treatment and how often you should be monitored.
In this blog, we’ll examine how one of the tests — the HBV DNA or viral load test –can give you a snapshot into your hepatitis B infection and your health. The HBV DNA test is performed on a blood sample using a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique that rapidly generates HBV DNA fragments so they can be measured. Today, viral load is usually measured using international units per milliliter (IU/mL). However, in the past it was measured in copies per milliliter (copies/mL), and in some regions and labs, it is still used.
If you ever need to convert copies into international units, there are about 5.6 copies in one international unit, so 5,000 copies/mL equals about 893 IU/mL. Remember to keep copies of your lab information on file so you can track your status. An Excel spreadsheet works great.
The sensitivity of HBV DNA tests may vary with each lab so it’s a good idea to always use the same lab for your test. Labs usually measure down to about 300 IU/mL. Below that threshold, the viral load is considered “undetectable” – something all of us with chronic hepatitis B wants to hear.
How HBV DNA results are presented mathematically on your lab report can be confusing. Because the amount of virus in the blood may be very high – in the millions or billions – the result may be displayed as an exponent or a log, rather than a whole number. If this is confusing to you, please take a look at this explanation on the math.
What does viral load say about what stage of hepatitis B you are in? Your viral load also varies over time, depending on your age and “stage” of infection.
Children and adults in the “immune tolerant” stage can have viral loads in the millions or even billions. It sounds scary, but it’s not unusual. Your viral load can remain very high for decades until your immune system begins attacking the infection. Most children and young adults who test positive for the hepatitis B “e” antigen (HBeAg) generally have high viral loads, generally doctors don’t treat patients in this stage. Once their immune systems get rid of HBeAg and generate “e” antibodies (HBeAb), their viral loads begin to decline.
Adults with undetectable or low viral loads and no signs of liver damage are in an “inactive” stage. Adults with normal ALT (SGPT) levels, which indicate no current liver damage, and undetectable or viral loads less than 2,000 IU/mL generally do not require treatment.
People in the “active” stage with elevated viral loads and signs of liver damage need treatment. Many people in their 40s, 50s or 60s, develop HBeAg-negative hepatitis B. Though individuals may have lost HBeAg, the virus has mutated over time and is able to keep replicating, putting these older patients at risk of liver damage. Doctors recommend antiviral treatment if these patients’ viral load exceeds 2,000 IU/ML and their ALT levels are elevated.
Why is it important to measure HBV DNA during treatment? When daily antiviral pills (either tenofovir or entecavir) are prescribed, doctors measure your HBV DNA to see if the drug is working to reduce your viral load. Antivirals work by meddling with the viral DNA so the virus cannot reproduce effectively. Doctors measure your viral load to make sure the antiviral is working.
Why is measuring viral load important if you’re pregnant? Today, all pregnant women are screened for hepatitis B, and experts also want their viral loads to be measured. When pregnant women have high viral loads—exceeding 200,000 IU/mL—medical guidelines recommend antiviral therapy during their third trimester of pregnancy to reduce their risk of infecting their newborns. Babies born to HBV-infected women can become infected even if they are immunized at birth and treated with HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) if their mothers have high viral loads.
It is important to remember that a viral load test provides you with important information, but it must be considered in relation to your other HBV and liver function tests results to determine if treatment is needed at all, or if you are responding favorably to current treatment. Although an undetectable or low viral load is good news, it does not necessarily guarantee that you have not, or will not experience liver damage. Hepatitis B is a tricky virus. Talk to your liver specialist about all of your test results.
Medical guidelines suggest that individuals with HBeAg-negative hepatitis B with signs of liver damage face an “indefinite” or even lifetime commitment to taking daily antiviral pills.
In this week’s blog, we explore when—if ever—individuals with hard-to-treat HBeAg-negative hepatitis B can ever stop taking antivirals.
First of all, what is HBeAg-negative hepatitis B? Many people infected with hepatitis B at birth and who remain infected into their 40s, 50s or 60s, develop HBeAg-negative hepatitis B. Researchers believe that over time the virus mutates to evade the immune system. Though individuals may have lost the hepatitis B “e” antigen (HBeAg) and developed the “e” antibody, this mutated virus develops the ability to keep replicating despite the loss of HBeAg. And this mutated virus is capable of putting people at higher risk of liver damage.
Generally, doctors recommend treatment to HBeAg-negative patients when their viral load exceeds 2,000 IU/ML and their ALT liver enzyme levels, which rise when liver cells are damaged, are even moderately elevated. (Normal ALT levels are less than 30 for men and 19 for women.)
The most common antiviral treatments are either entecavir (Baraclude) or tenofovir (Viread). These two are considered the most powerful at quickly reducing viral load (HBV DNA) and have a very low risk of causing drug resistance, which is critical considering the long-term treatment required by HBeAg-negative patients.
But can individuals with HBeAg-negative hepatitis B ever stop treatment? Antivirals are expensive, without insurance tenofovir costs about $1,000 a month and generic entecavir costs about $407 in the U.S. Additionally, long-term antiviral treatment can cause bone loss.
Late last year, hepatitis B experts with the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) tackled this question and reviewed recent studies that followed HBeAg-negative hepatitis B patients who stopped antivirals. They found that even when these patients enjoyed two years of undetectable viral load and normal ALT levels during treatment, when they stopped only half of them were able to maintain a low viral low (below 2,000 IU/mL) and normal ALT levels.
The risk of dangerous “flares” after stopping treatment, “requires careful weighing of potential for harm and benefit,” the experts wrote. This is important because many HBeAg-negative patients are older and more vulnerable to liver damage and cancer.
In their new recommendations, AASLD experts make clear their findings are “conditional” and the quality of evidence found in the studies they reviewed is “low.” However, this is what they tentatively recommend:
Stopping treatment, “may be considered in persons who have (lost) the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). However, there is currently insufficient evidence to definitively guide treatment decisions for such persons.”
And, anyone who stops antiviral therapy should be monitored every three months for at least one year to see if their viral load rebounds or if they have signs of liver damage, including ALT flares.
Given the knowledge-gap about the long-term health consequences of HBeAg-negative hepatitis B, more research with longer durations of monitoring are needed, experts recommended. “Alternative treatment strategies for patients on long-term antiviral therapy, such as adding or switching to (pegylated interferon), warrant further study,” they concluded.
Eighteen years ago, doctors started treating hepatitis B patients with antivirals and today liver specialists have a wealth of knowledge about how these drugs stop the virus from replicating and reduce viral load. But one thing they’re still not certain about is when patients can safely stop taking their daily antiviral pill.
In this week’s blog, we’ll explore when experts think it’s safe for patients, who have lost the hepatitis B “e” antigen (HBeAg) during antiviral treatment, to stop . Next week, we’ll look at when it’s safe for patients who were already HBeAg-negative when they began antiviral treatment to stop.
Today, doctors prescribe one of two antivirals—either entecavir (Baraclude) or tenofovir (Viread). Among the antivirals developed since 1998, these two are considered the most powerful in quickly reducing viral load (HBV DNA) and they carry the lowest risk of drug resistance. Doctors usually prescribe antivirals when our viral load is elevated and we have sign of liver damage–indicated by elevated liver enzymes (ALT or SGPT).
Antivirals quickly knock down viral load, which in turn is believed to lower our risk of liver damage and cancer. But antivirals work for only as long as we take them. When we stop, the virus usually reactivates although this is very rarely fatal or results in a liver transplant. Studies show that at least 78 percent of people who stop antivirals have an increase in viral load, 44 percent have a rise in ALT levels indicating liver damage, and among those who lose HBeAg during treatment, at least 9 percent experienced a return of HBeAg.
But what about individuals who take antivirals for long periods and enjoyed years of undetectable viral load, no signs of liver damage, loss of HBeAg, and development of the “e” antibody? Can they stop? After all, antivirals are expensive. Without insurance, a month’s supply of tenofovir costs about $1,000 and generic entecavir costs about $407 in the U.S., not to mention possible side effects such as bone loss or reduced kidney function with tenofovir..
Late last year, hepatitis B experts from the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) tackled this question and reviewed recent studies that followed patients who stopped antivirals after losing HBeAg. They found no clear answers and made clear their recommendations were “conditional” because the quality of evidence found in the studies was “low.” But here is what they recommend for patients who lost HBeAg during antiviral treatment and now have normal ALT levels:
Experts “suggest” that adults who don’t have cirrhosis (severe liver scarring) who lost HBeAg and developed “e” antibodies may stop treatment after a minimum of 12 months of normal ALT levels and undetectable viral load.
However, they recommend a longer “consolidation” treatment period might be better to reduce patients’ risk of relapse and a return of HBeAg after treatment stops. They suggested that an alternative approach would be to stay on antivirals until patients lose the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg).
Decisions about how long to stay on antivirals require careful consideration of health risks and benefits, they wrote, including risks of relapse, liver damage, and liver cancer. Other considerations include the cost of treatment, the risk of developing drug resistance if people stop antivirals intermittently, and other side effects.
Anyone who stops taking antivirals, they advise, should be monitored frequently – at least every three months — for at least one year for liver damage and resurgence of viral load. Anyone with cirrhosis should continue treatment indefinitely because of their high risk of liver cancer.
For now, the message appears to error on the side of caution and continue on antivirals until you have cleared HBsAg for a prolonged period of time. Clearly this decision is one you must discuss carefully with your doctor.
In next week’s blog, we examine how long people who were HBeAg-negative when they started antivirals should remain on treatment.