Hep B Blog

Category Archives: Living with Hepatitis B

Is Fasting Safe for People Living with Hepatitis B?

Courtesy of Pixabay.
Courtesy of Pixabay.

By Christine Kukka

If you have hepatitis B  and you’re considering fasting to lose weight, celebrate Ramadan or “detox” your liver, think again and talk to your doctor first.

Fasting can lower blood sugar, zap your energy, stress your immune system and be life-threatening for people suffering liver damage from viral hepatitis.

“Fasting for very limited periods of time may be safe if you have no signs of liver damage—indicated by normal liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) or an ultrasound exam of the liver,” said Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish. However, if you have liver damage (with ALT/SGPT levels exceeding 30 in men and 19 in women) and are taking medications to treat hepatitis B, research shows fasting may exacerbate liver damage.

Is limited fasting safe? Culturally, fasting is practiced to bring people closer to their spirituality and increase empathy for those living in poverty. For Muslims, fasting is practiced during Ramadan (beginning May 26 and ending June 25). During Ramadan, Muslims are instructed to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Image courtesy of Prakairoj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Prakairoj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Historically, Islamic teachings allow pregnant women and people with serious medical conditions to break with tradition and eat and drink during daylight hours if their health is at risk. Rawalpindi Medical College Principal and Professor of Medicine Dr. Muhammad Umar of Pakistan explained that if hepatitis B and C patients are healthy, they can safely fast during the day. But if they are taking antiviral medications, or have serious liver damage such as cirrhosis (liver scarring) or ascites (distention of abdomen due to the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity) or liver cancer, fasting is not allowed.

There is little research about what impact limited fasting has on people with chronic hepatitis B. A report in the Journal of Virology that studied the effect of fasting in hepatitis B-infected transgenic mice found that fasting increased viral load and production of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). Other reports suggest that hepatitis B viral production in the liver is strongly influenced by a person’s nutritional intake.

Bottom line: Hepatitis B patients with liver damage should not fast, and “healthy” people living with chronic hepatitis B should talk to their doctors before embarking on any kind of fasting program.

Courtesy of Pixabay.
Courtesy of Pixabay.

Does fasting help us lose weight and reduce the risk of “fatty liver?” No. Nearly all medical experts agree fasting is not a healthy way to lose weight. When you fast, you lose fluid quickly, and your weight comes back quickly as soon as you start drinking water and hydrating yourself again.

Many experts say fasting makes it harder to lose weight because it slows your metabolic rate so you process food slower. While fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan may not pose a medical risk if you’re healthy, if you go for long periods without eating, your immune system weakens and isn’t able to suppress a hepatitis B infection effectively.

“A weight loss program that works should include proper nutrition, exercise and portion control,” explained Dr. Gish. He has designed a weight loss guide and contract for patients and doctors that offers guidelines for achieving healthy, long-term weight loss. Dr. Gish’s dieting recommendations include:

  • Keep a diary of everything you eat;
  • Exercise three hours a week;
  • Eat five small meals a day (150 to 200 calories each) using tea cup saucers for plates with no second servings;
  • And, use glass cups or bottles for drinks, instead of plastic bottles that may contain toxic bis-Phenols (BP).

Will fasting “detox” your body or liver? Most doctors say no. There there is no scientific evidence that shows fasting removes toxins from the body or the liver, because our organs are already very adept at doing that very effectively.

The liver, for example, is a natural detox center as long as it gets the water and nutrients needed to perform the job. Toxins don’t build up in the liver, it’s the liver’s job to break them down and dispose of them. Toxins can build up in fatty tissue, however, which is why a sustained, long-term weight-loss plan involving exercise and a healthy, low-fat diet is recommended.

Hepatitis B Foundation Executive Director Joan Block Steps Down, But First Shares Her Love Story

Tim and Joan Block
Tim and Joan Block

By Joan Block, RN, BSN, Executive Director and Co-Founder

The story of the Hepatitis B Foundation is a love story that’s never been told. In June, I will retire after 25 years of service, so now feels like the right time to share my personal story.

In 1987, I was diagnosed with hepatitis B. I had just married Tim (co-founder and president of the foundation and its research affiliate, the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute) when my doctor suggested I get tested for hepatitis B because I was born in Korea.

We were devastated by the diagnosis. As a young nurse in the 1980s, the only hepatitis B patients I knew were dying of liver failure or liver cancer. They were kept in isolation rooms where I had to wear a gown, gloves, and mask to even provide them with basic care.

This was a dark and scary time for us. There was nowhere to turn for information or support, and no available treatment. The prospect of our life together was overshadowed by fear and uncertainty.

My husband Tim, a research scientist, took immediate action by changing his focus to hepatitis B and began the quest to find a cure. We reached out to our close friends, Paul and Jan Witte, and together we decided to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure for hepatitis B and helping those affected.

In 1991, the Hepatitis B Foundation was officially established. A quarter of a century later, the foundation has grown from a grassroots effort into the world’s leading nonprofit research and disease advocacy organization solely dedicated to hepatitis B.

Joan M. Block, Co-Founder and Executive Director
Joan M. Block, RN, BSN, Co-Founder and Executive Director

There are many reasons why I waited so long to share my personal story. At first, it was fear and shame. The stigma of having an infectious disease was strong, even though I had acquired hepatitis B at birth. Later, I wanted to keep the focus on the mission of the foundation, not on my personal story.

Today, however, I realize that there is a compelling need for people like myself to publicly share their stories. We need to break the silence around hepatitis B. Personal stories are a powerful tool to increase awareness, decrease stigma and end discrimination.

Although I am stepping down as executive director, I will continue to be passionately involved in advancing the foundation’s mission to find a cure. I will also use every opportunity to personally give voice to the more than 257 million people affected by hepatitis B worldwide.

If more of us can stand up and say without fear or hesitation, “I have hepatitis B,” then we will indeed contribute significantly to making hepatitis B history!

Thank you.

In recognition of Joan’s dedicated service, the Board of Directors has created the Joan Block Improving Lives Fund of the Hepatitis B Foundation. This fund will enable the foundation to advocate powerfully to increase research funds for a cure, end discrimination against those affected, and increase screening, prevention and care to save more lives from hepatitis B.

To honor Joan’s valuable legacy, please make a donation at our secure website by clicking here.

Ten Things Women and Mothers Can Do to Combat Hepatitis B

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

By Christine Kukka

Don’t know your hepatitis B status? Get tested. An estimated 75 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. Unfortunately, many doctors won’t test you for hepatitis B unless you request the test. If you or your parents come from a country with high rates of hepatitis B, or if you’ve been sexually active or have other risk factors , get tested. It could save your life.

Get tested for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). More than half of us will have an STI in our lifetime, and in the U.S. about half of new hepatitis B infections are sexually-transmitted. Many doctors don’t test for STIs. In a national survey of U.S. physicians, fewer than one-third routinely screened patients for STIs. To make matters worse, many women are afraid to talk to doctors about their sexual history and STI risk. Be brave, ask your doctor to test you for STIs and hepatitis B if you think you are at risk.

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

Get immunized against hepatitis B. Not sure if you’ve been immunized during childhood? Tell your healthcare provider and get tested and immunized. Even you were vaccinated in the past, getting a second vaccine series won’t harm you. If your partner has hepatitis B, getting vaccinated is critical to protect your health. Practice safe sex until you have received all three shots. About one to two months after your third shot, get tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (called titers). If you have at least 10 mIU/mL of surface antibodies, you are permanently protected against this serious liver disease.

Infected? In Love? Disclose. When you disclose your hepatitis B status before sex – even if it’s safe sex with a condom – you don’t jeopardize your partner’s health or his/her trust in you. Talking about hepatitis B helps reduce the stigma surrounding this infection and may prompt the person to get vaccinated. How do you tell a potential partner that you have hepatitis B? Calmly and carefully. Do some research so you have a thorough understanding about hepatitis B, which will make it easier for you to calmly explain it. The more you know, the less you fear, and the more comfortable you will be in dispelling their fears and conveying a sense of truth and integrity.

Insist on sterile medical and tattoo equipment. Hepatitis B can live for several days on hard surfaces, including improperly-sterilized and re-used syringes and other medical devices. Whether you’re going for a tattoo or to a dentist or doctor’s office, it is your right to insist that all equipment is brand new (ask to see it removed from protective packaging) and properly sterilized. Visit a licensed, professional tattoo parlor and make sure all tattoo equipment has been sterilized and that needles come out of new packages.

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Infected and pregnant? Protect your baby from hepatitis B.

  • Make sure your newborn gets the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth. Nearly all hepatitis B-infected women will pass the infection onto their children during delivery, but you can stop that infection cycle. In about 90 percent of cases, immediate immunization will prevent infection. In some countries, it may be difficult to get just the single hepatitis B vaccine dose, but if you are able to immunize your baby at birth, you will have protected your child against a potentially dangerous liver disease. If you live in an area where HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) is available, make sure your newborn is also given a dose of HBIG at birth, this adds another layer of protection against infection.
  • Get your viral load (HBV DNA) tested early in your pregnancy. Some women with high viral loads (exceeding 200,000 IU/mL or 1 million copies/mL) are at high risk of infecting their newborns, even if the baby receives the first vaccine dose within 12 hours of birth. Ask your doctor to test your viral load, if it’s high, medical guidelines recommend treatment with the antiviral tenofovir during the last three months of your pregnancy to lower your viral load. If you doctor doesn’t test your viral load, be assertive and ask for the test.
  • Breastfeeding is OK, even if you have hepatitis B. If you’re infected with hepatitis B, you can safely breastfeed your baby, as long as the baby was vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth.
Maureen and her two daughters
Maureen and her two daughters

Your children infected? Don’t wait to start talking to them about hepatitis B. You need to start talking to them about germs and how to keep themselves and others safe when they’re young. (Listen to Jin’s Story #justB You about growing up with hepatitis B.) This conversation will be one of the hardest discussions you will ever have with your child, and you’ll be talking about it often in the years ahead, but you can do it!

To hear how other mothers handled talking about hepatitis B with their children, visit our Storytelling page and click on Maureen’s Story #justB Brave  and Maureen K’s Story #just B Assertive  to hear how these mothers navigated issues of disclosure and stigma with their daughters.

 Talk to your children about sex and safe sex practices. It’s critical to educate young people about sexual health and STIs. If we want our sons and daughters to feel empowered to take care of their sexual health, we have to change the culture that dictates the way we talk – or don’t talk – about sex. That means removing denial, uncertainty and shame so we have better conversations about sexual health, sexual assault prevention and STIs. It’s also important to encourage our children to have frank sexual health discussions with one another.

Take care of your health, get monitored regularly: It is important to get your hepatitis B monitored regularly – at least every year and more often if you have liver damage. Women living with hepatitis B tend to have lower rates of liver damage than men because estrogen appears to help protect the liver. But even if we lead a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol and cigarettes, as we age our immune system weakens and our viral load (HBV DNA) can start to rise. There is no cure yet for hepatitis B, but there are effective drugs that lower viral load and reduce the risk of liver damage.

Renseley and her husband.
Renseley and her husband.

Be happy. A mother or woman who is well rested, enjoys a healthy diet, gets plenty of exercise, has good relationships with friends and family members and knows how to ask for help when she needs it, is far better equipped to be happy and be the best mother she can be. It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself. Tough times happen, and sometimes a friend or family member may need us, and we will need to be strong during difficult times. If we take care of ourselves and ask for help, in the long run happiness will prevail. For a profile in joy and courage while fighting hepatitis B in her family, watch Renseley’s Story #justB Strong.

The Hepatitis B Foundation recently launched its storytelling campaign, sharing the stories of people affected by hepatitis B. Join a Twitter interview including Maureen K, parent of a daughter with hepatitis B, at 2 p.m. (EST), Tuesday, May 16, hosted by the Hepatitis B Foundation and StoryCenter. Click here for more information.

Join Us for a Twitter Interview! Meet Our Storytellers and Learn Their Hepatitis B Stories

#justB-Twittervu-blogThe Hepatitis B Foundation is proud to launch its storytelling campaign, sharing the stories of people living with and affected by hepatitis B. Join the Twitter interview at 2 p.m. (EST), Tuesday, May 16, hosted by the Hepatitis B Foundation and StoryCenter.

We will introduce three of our storytellers and their stories. Join the Twitter interview with the hashtag #justB and hear the poignant stories of real people living with hep B.

We will be introducing Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. Jason, was in a difficult place in his life with addiction and depression when he learned of his hepatitis B and sought treatment. Bunmi, originally from Nigeria, talks about the loss of her father to hepatitis B- related liver cancer and the unwillingness of her family to talk about his disease. Maureen’s hepatitis B journey began with the adoption of her daughter, and the struggle with disclosure with family and friends. These brave storytellers are ready to put an end to the silence surrounding hepatitis B.

Below are the topics scheduled for discussion during the Twitter interview. How can you contribute to the conversation? Please support Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. as they disclose their hepatitis B stories on social media. Consider sharing parts of your hep B story or pose a question. Join the conversation with the hashtag #justB.

T1. Tell us about hepatitis B, the storytelling campaign and what the foundation hopes to achieve for those affected by hepatitis B.
T2. What makes hepatitis B different from other diseases, and how do these stories highlight the challenges associated with hepatitis B?
T3. We’d like to open it up to our storytellers. Please tell us about your story, and what makes hepatitis B different from other diseases.
T4. How has hepatitis B affected your life?
T5. What made you decide to share your hepatitis B story? Were you concerned with the stigma associated with hepatitis B?
T6. Describe your experience meeting with others impacted by hepatitis B.
T7. If there is one message you would like to get across to others about coping with #hepatitis B, what would it be?
T8: What would you tell others that are struggling with whether or not they should share their hepatitis B story?

Co-hosts and special guest handles include:

Be sure to watch Jason, Bunmi and MaureenK‘s stories.

Are you just getting started with Twitter and want to know how to join the conversation?  Type #justB in the search box of the Twitter application and click on the “latest option” to follow the twitter view.

#justB in search box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can prepare any questions or tweets you might have for the above participants in advance, or you can also tweet on the fly, re-tweet, or Like a tweet from the chat.

The topics are labeled T1, T2, etc. so please respond/answer specific topic by using A1, A2, etc. in front of your tweets. Remember to include the #justB hashtag, which is not case sensitive, in all of your tweets.

Looking forward to sharing the stories of our guests on the Twitter view. Please welcome them by joining the conversation!

People Affected by Hepatitis B Share Stories of Family Secrets, Stigma and Diagnoses That Came Too Late

Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.
Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.

In an innovative storytelling initiative, people living with chronic hepatitis B open their hearts and share their stories of family secrets, stigma and diagnoses that came too late as they confront the impact of hepatitis B on themselves and the people they love.

The Hepatitis B Foundation, working with StoryCenter, has created unique video stories that share the experiences of people affected by hepatitis B, which affects one-third of the world’s population. The video stories, which debut May 1 in recognition of Hepatitis Awareness Month, are designed to raise awareness about the liver disease that affects 2 million in the U.S.

There is no better way to understand the human toll hepatitis B takes than to hear directly from those affected. Most people know very little about this disease and up to 75 percent of people living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. The hope is that these stories will put a human face on this infection and help improve testing, vaccination and treatment.

One storytelling video, featuring former ABC 7 News anchor Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, talks about how doctors fail to test people for hepatitis B. It was after the CEO of Newsworthy Media suffered liver damage that a doctor tested him for hepatitis B. “It was only because I (had) a medical reporter friend who connected me to a leading hepatologist that I got the attention I needed,” Wang, 49, explains in his story. After his diagnosis, he encouraged family members to be tested and his mother and siblings were also found to be infected by the disease that is easily transmitted at birth.

justB“We were left to connect the dots because the medical profession is failing to address an epidemic that kills more than 700,000 people a year,” he explained. “It’s bad enough that hepatitis B is a silent killer with few symptoms until it’s too late. It’s also ignored by Asian cultures that consider talk about deadly diseases to be taboo.”

While a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B has been available since 1982, many Americans did not have access to the vaccine. John Ellis Jr., another hepatitis B storyteller who lives in Pensacola, FL, was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B at age 16. He, like many people living with hepatitis B, does not know how he became infected.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked the doctor couldn’t tell me how I contracted it, as if finding out how I contracted hepatitis B would somehow cure me of it. As I grow older, what’s most important to me is maintaining my health.” Ellis explains in his story that he wants to be, “bigger than his diagnosis.” He does not want hepatitis to hold him back or define him. He is an entrepreneur and he has organized a charity bike ride to raise awareness and funding for research.

Another featured storyteller is pharmacist Bunmi Daramaja, of Elkridge, MD, who grew up in Nigeria and emigrated to the U.S. She struggled with her family’s reluctance to discuss her father’s death from liver cancer, resulting from chronic hepatitis B.

“Stigma is everywhere (in my African culture),” she explained in her story. “People don’t think about the facts of how the virus is transmitted– they are afraid to even touch someone who has it. Many people don’t even want to get tested, because treatment is either not available or costs too much money. They say, ‘What’s the point?’ This needs to change.

“In the U.S., the services are here, and I want to make sure that people of African origin know there are resources. I want to end this silence,” she explained.

The Hepatitis B Foundation’s Storytelling page helps tell the story about an infection in the U.S. that is under-diagnosed, under-treated and remains stigmatized across America.

Time to End the Military’s Ban on Enlistees with Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

One of the most glaring civil rights abuses facing people with hepatitis B in the United States today is the military’s continued refusal to allow anyone with chronic hepatitis B to enlist.

This prohibition continues, despite the fact that all military personnel are vaccinated against hepatitis B, and scientific data shows hepatitis B is not spread through casual contact.

“Our brave servicemen and women deserve nothing less than the best, yet many qualified individuals are being prevented from serving in specific roles and/or being promoted within the military’s ranks. That’s simply wrong,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., in a letter challenging the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits people with hepatitis B and C and HIV from enlisting in the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This outdated and scientifically-baseless Department of Defense policy damages the civil liberties of many Americans.

  • Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, African and Middle Eastern immigrants and other ethnic groups are disproportionately impacted by hepatitis B. For example, Asian-Americans make up less than 5 percent of the total U.S. population but account for more than 50 percent of the 2 million people living with hepatitis B cases in the U.S.
  • Immigrants and their children are also disproportionately affected by hepatitis B, due to the lack of vaccinations in their countries of origin. As a result, they are barred from military service, which offers a path to citizenship.

What is especially heart-breaking are the young men and women who work hard to get into prestigious military academies, only to be dismissed when it’s discovered they have hepatitis B.

military-662872_1920This military code historically barred people with serious medical conditions because they were considered unfit to serve, suspected to incur high healthcare costs and could pose an infection risk to fellow soldiers.

The code prohibits enlistees with the, “Presence of … current acute or chronic hepatitis carrier state, hepatitis in the preceding six months or persistence of symptoms after six months, or objective evidence of impairment of liver function.”

But most people with chronic hepatitis B who want to enlist are healthy, have no liver damage, do not pose an infection risk to others, and are capable of performing the same duties required of their fellow recruits. Clearly, military policy has not caught up with current science.

This discriminatory policy is difficult to challenge, despite the best efforts of advocates including Rep. Lee and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL).

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and chronic diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, unfortunately has no jurisdiction over the Department of Defense.

Although the Department of Justice and CDC have issued clear, science-based guidelines that find hepatitis B-infected healthcare providers to pose no infection threat to patients or coworkers, the military continues to practice its discriminatory policies, which rob the military of talented and motivated recruits.

It is time to change these outdated and discriminatory policies. There are many good men and women waiting, willing and able.

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.

Struggling with Depression and Hepatitis B? You’re Not Alone

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

By Christine Kukka

Studies show people with chronic hepatitis B have higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population, which should surprise no one.

There’s no cure, people with hepatitis B face stigma and discrimination, and when we disclose, we risk rejection or friends think we’ve done drugs or slept around. And, if we are people of color, we’re already viewed as outsiders or different already; a medical diagnosis just adds to our feeling of alienation.

Sometimes, we need help. We need to be reminded once again that hepatitis B is nothing to be ashamed of, that millions of people around the world are infected not because they did anything wrong, but because it’s not a perfect world and not everyone had access to the hepatitis B vaccine at birth or sterile medical equipment or is able to practice safe sex 100 percent of the time.

Some symptoms of depression include feeling sad, down, or just emotionally flat or apathetic. We may feel tired, irritable, or experience mood swings and find we are unable to concentrate. If we’re taking antivirals, we may frequently forget to take our meds. We might also lose our appetite, sleep too much or too little, and fantasize about harming ourselves or even suicide.

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

It’s time to get some help. Medical guidelines usually recommend a combination of “talk” therapy and antidepressant medication. Talking to a therapist, especially if you’ve always kept your hepatitis B a secret, can help you get a better handle on your infection. It can be liberating to have another person challenge your cataclysmic view of life, especially if you’re you’ll never find love or happiness.

It’s also good to join a support group or an email list to confirm that you’re not the only one in the world with hepatitis B.

The other treatment for depression are antidepressant pills, taken daily. Antidepressants take a while to build up in your system so you usually have to take them for a few weeks before you feel better.

Are antidepressants safe if you have hepatitis B?

Antidepressants generally do not harm the liver, unless you have severe, pre-existing liver damage (such as cirrhosis), are older, or are taking several medications at once.

According to research, about 0.5 percent to 3 percent of those taking antidepressants may develop very mild elevation in their liver enzymes (called ALT or SGPT), which indicate mild liver damage. Unless you already have severe liver damage, experts see no threat from antidepressants, but if there is concern, your doctor should monitor your ALT/SGPT levels more frequently than usual during your first weeks of antidepressant treatment, especially if your ALT/SGPT level is already elevated.

“I would say antidepressant shouldn’t be used if there’s been liver failure,” said Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Robert Gish. “If there’s just cirrhosis and you have normal liver function (normal ALT/SGPT) antidepressant still should be fine. The only one not to use is Cymbalta (duloxetine). “

The antidepressants that may cause the highest risk of moderate liver damage,  include monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, tricyclic/tetracyclic antidepressants, nefazodone, bupropion (Wellbutrin, also used for ADD and smoking cessation), duloxetine and agomelatine.

Drugs with lower risk of causing liver damage include citalopram, escitalopram, paroxetine (Paxil) and fluvoxamine.

Among the most common antidepressants used today is fluoxetine (Prozac).  According to the National Institutes of Health LiverTox report,  in people with no pre-existing liver infections or damage, “Liver test abnormalities have been reported to occur rarely in patients on fluoxetine (less than 1 percent), and elevations (in ALT/SGPT) are usually modest and usually do not require dose modification or discontinuation.”

In addition to seeking treatment and therapy, below are some other ways to relieve stress and improve your sense of well-being.

  • Join a support group.
  • Ask friends of family for help.
  • Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive ones, even if you don’t believe it at the beginning. Talk it until you can walk it.
  • Join a yoga, meditation or stress management class.
  • Get out in the sunlight and exercise more, even if it’s taking a short walk. Find something you find joy in.
  • Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep each night, and talk to your healthcare provider if you have problems sleeping.
  • Avoid alcohol (which is a depressant) and other self-medication.

 

March 1 is Zero Discrimination Day: Ending Hepatitis B Stigma Starts with Us

 

2017-zero-discrimination-day_en.pdfBy Christine Kukka

Around the world, millions of people with chronic hepatitis B face wrenching discrimination that limits their dreams, education, careers, income and personal relationships. Here are examples:

  • A Vietnamese woman working in a hotel in Dubai is found to have hepatitis B and is fired, isolated, deported and given a life-time ban on re-entering the country.
  • A young person from the Philippines, aspiring to increase her income to support her impoverished family, is hired to work in Saipan, but her work visa is suddenly cancelled by the employment agency when it discovers she has hepatitis B.
  • A young man from the state of Washington, who worked hard in high school to get into the Naval Academy, is summarily dismissed within days of his arrival when it’s discovered he has hepatitis B. The U.S. military continues to bar people with hepatitis B from serving.

All of this discrimination is unethical, unnecessary and a violation of human rights. Hepatitis B is simply not transmitted through casual contact. The stigma that persists is based on ignorance and it impacts millions around the world daily. This is why we need to recognize Zero Discrimination Day on Wednesday, March 1.

Image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

This day, designated by the United Nations, highlights the negative impact of discrimination and promotes tolerance, compassion and peace. Many hepatitis activist organizations, including the Hepatitis B Foundation, is using this celebration to draw attention to global hepatitis B discrimination.

In the U.S., some progress has been made to eradicate the unequal treatment of people affected by chronic hepatitis B infection. In 2012, prompted in part by complaints filed by the foundation, CDC issued new regulations that clarified that hepatitis B should not, “disqualify infected persons from the practice or study of surgery, dentistry, medicine, or allied health fields.” These recommendations and a U.S. Department of Justice letter warned medical, nursing, dental schools that they could not exclude applicants and students with hepatitis B, concluding, “… for most chronically HBV-infected providers and students who conform to current standards for infection control, HBV infection status alone does not require any curtailing of their practices or supervised learning experiences.”

However, today people with hepatitis B can’t even get jobs as hotel maids in many countries in the Middle East and Asia. Fear and ignorance, and reluctance by government officials to outlaw these discriminatory practices, have allowed these rules that diminish basic human rights to continue. The young woman who was exiled from Dubai, wrote of her experience:

“When I was 21, I had my internship in Dubai and needed to undergo a blood test. I was not aware of the rules in that country so when I was tested positive, the hotel that I worked for isolated me. I was going through a very hard time because I was completely alone in a foreign country. My work visa was canceled, they brought me to a place that looked like a jail, they took my iris scan, and I was deported along with a lifetime ban, which means I can never come back to that country again. That was the most horrible memory in my life. I am still scared every time I think about it. Sometimes I cannot sleep at night, I keep blaming, cursing myself for having this kind of virus inside my body.”

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

No one is to blame for hepatitis B, including the millions who were infected at birth or from unsafe and contaminated syringes and medical devices. There is a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B today. When people are protected, there is no reason to fear that healthcare workers or hotel maids will spread this infection.

It is morally reprehensible that given the tools and knowledge we have that this discrimination should continue today.

Every day is zero discrimination day, and ending discrimination starts with us working individually in any way we can in our communities to end this stigma.

Make the NOhep:NOexcuse pledge and take simple actions to help eliminate viral hepatitis. It only takes a minute to pledge your support! 

The United Nations first celebrated Zero Discrimination Day on March 1, 2014, after UNAIDS, a UN program on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), launched its Zero Discrimination Campaign on World AIDS Day.