Hep B Blog

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Newly Diagnosed with Hepatitis B? Acute or Chronic? Learning the HBV Basics…

Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve just been diagnosed with hepatitis B after a routine blood test or following a blood donation, you may be feeling overwhelmed with information about this complicated infection and references to acute or chronic hepatitis B.

Here is an explanation of these two terms and what happens when you’re first infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and body fluids. It can be spread during unprotected sex, unsafe medical procedures, exposure to blood that enters your body through a cut,  or by sharing personal items such as body jewelry or toothbrushes. Most commonly it is spread during childbirth when the mother is infected.

What is a chronic infection? When we’re infected as newborns or young children, our immature immune systems don’t notice or fight the virus and it travels to our liver and begins reproducing. With no opposition from our immune systems, a hepatitis B infection can continue for years. When a hepatitis B infection lasts longer than six months, it is considered a chronic or long-term infection. Most people with chronic hepatitis B were infected at birth or during early childhood. Immunization with the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG), if available, within 12 to 24 hours of birth can break this mother-to-child infection cycle, but the birth vaccine dose and often HBIG is not always available around the world.

What is an acute infection? When we’re infected with HBV as healthy adults, about 90 percent of us are able to get rid of the infection within six months. It can take up to six months for our immune systems to generate antibodies and eradicate the infection in our liver. This short-term infection is called acute hepatitis B.

To determine if you have an acute or chronic infection, you must be tested for hepatitis B over a six-month period. The specific test that indicates if you are infected is the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) test. This antigen covers the surface of the virus and usually there are lots of HBsAg in your blood when you’re infected. If you test positive for HBsAg for longer than six months, it means you have a chronic hepatitis B infection.

But, if you no longer test positive (or “reactive”) for HBsAg after six months and you develop hepatitis B surface antibodies (HBsAb), then you have cleared hepatitis B after an “acute” infection. There are some additional blood tests that your doctor may order to get a better understanding of your infection, but not everyone has access to these tests. Some tests are rather expensive and they may still need to be repeated over time in order to confirm the diagnosis. Please be patient. The good news is that hepatitis B is not typically an emergency.

Here is more good news. If you are a healthy adult and are newly or acutely infected, know that your chances are good that the hepatitis B infection will go away on its own. It is rare that you require medication to get rid of the virus, your immune system does that for you.  A person with a new hepatitis B infection may not have any symptoms, or they may not be very notable. For example, you might feel more tired. About 70 percent of people newly-infected with hepatitis B never experience symptoms.

But, some people experience severe symptoms like jaundice (yellowing skin or eyes), severe nausea or vomiting, or a bloated stomach (unrelated to your weight), and they need to see a doctor immediately. If you have a new or acute infection, even these drastic symptoms may not necessarily mean that you need any form of treatment, but you will need to be monitored with additional tests to make sure your liver is safe.

If you can’t confirm you were infected as a child, you will need to wait the six months to find out if you cleared your infection. Please be patient and do not panic, but remember you do need to take precautions during this time to make sure you don’t spread the infection to others. Practice safe sex (use a condom), and don’t share personal items that may have trace amounts of blood on them.

Also, you can suggest that your family members get screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated if needed. If you were infected at birth, there is a chance that your siblings may also be infected. Sexual partners and close household members should also be tested. There may be a nine-week period right after infection when they may not test positive for HBsAg even if they have been infected.

Celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, And Get Tested for Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The month of May was selected in 1978 to mark the first major Japanese immigration to the United States (May 7, 1843), and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869), built primarily by Chinese immigrants.

Like all immigrants, Asians and Pacific Islanders brought with them unique cultures, languages, and lingering health problems from their homeland, including hepatitis B.

This blood-borne infection, unknowingly passed from mother-to-child, is an infection without a cure that would impact Asian immigrants and their children for decades until a vaccine was developed.

Today, administration of the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine along with a dose of HBIG within 12 hours of birth severs this viral legacy and protects newborns from inheriting this infection. But that is not the end of the story. There are still many Asian-Americans who remain infected, and many Asian immigrants arriving today live with hepatitis B.

An estimated one in 12 Asian-Americans currently has hepatitis B, and two in three don’t know they are infected. Their infection rate is more than 20 times higher than that of the total U.S. population. Hepatitis B is the greatest health disparity between Asian-Americans and the general U.S. population. Approximately 1 million Asian-Americans are living with chronic hepatitis B infection – that’s about half of all cases in the United States. Continue reading "Celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, And Get Tested for Hepatitis B"

It’s Hepatitis Awareness Month: Five Reasons We Don’t Get Tested, and How to Overcome Them

Members of Drexel University's Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association participate in a hepatitis B screening program at a Chinese Christian church in Philadelphia.
Members of Drexel University’s Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association participate in a hepatitis B screening program at a Chinese Christian church in Philadelphia.

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.

We feel fine, so we assume we’re not infected. Hepatitis B rarely causes symptoms. There are very few sensory nerves around the liver, so when a viral hepatitis infection strikes, we rarely feel its effects. As a result, most of us – especially if we were infected as children or newborns – never experience any symptoms for decades. So remember, “feeling OK” is no excuse to avoid testing. Continue reading "It’s Hepatitis Awareness Month: Five Reasons We Don’t Get Tested, and How to Overcome Them"

How Was I Infected with Hepatitis B? Making the Journey from Anger to Acceptance

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

By Christine Kukka

“How did I get infected? Who could have infected me?” These questions are common when we are first diagnosed with hepatitis B.

Dumbfounded by the news, we struggle to understand when this infection could have occurred and who could have infected us with a virus that now threatens our health and well-being.

This diagnosis not only affects our health, it can weaken the trust we’ve placed in family members, friends and lovers. It threatens to dismantle basic beliefs we’ve held about fairness and honesty, and the assumption that if we treated people well that we would be treated fairly in return. Infections know no moral codes and ignore all the unspoken deals we have made with the universe. Continue reading "How Was I Infected with Hepatitis B? Making the Journey from Anger to Acceptance"

Taking Antivirals Long-Term for Hepatitis B? Should You Worry About Bone Loss?

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

By Christine Kukka

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?"

Diagnosed With Chronic Hepatitis B? What Does Your HBV DNA Test Tell You?

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

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.

Can People with HBeAg-Negative Hepatitis B Ever Stop Taking Antivirals?

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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.

 

I’ve Lost the Hepatitis B “e” Antigen (HBeAg), So When Can I Stop Treatment?

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

Ten Things People with Hepatitis B Need to Know in 2016

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In 2015, doctors continued to unlock the mysteries of hepatitis B and uncovered promising new treatments. Armed with new information, here are 10 things we can do in 2016 to safeguard our health and help prevent the spread of hepatitis B.

  1. Get monitored regularly. No one likes a blood draw or to be reminded they have hepatitis B, but it’s important that you’re tested annually or more often if you have a high viral load and/or signs of liver damage. There’s no cure yet, but there are effective treatment options with more in the pipeline. So be brave, protect your health, and go to the lab for a blood test.
  2. If you’ve been prescribed an antiviral, don’t forget to take it. Taking a pill every day is tedious and it’s tempting to skip it, but failing to take your daily antiviral reduces its effectiveness and can lead to drug resistance. The hepatitis B virus is a master at mutating to escape whatever is attacking it. Forgetting to take your daily pill can lead to an uptick in your viral load and liver damage. Stay strong, take your daily pill, and keep that virus undetectable.
  3. Face it, antivirals are a long-term commitment. Until a cure is developed, antivirals—either tenofovir (Viread) or entecavir (Baraclude)—are the best treatment to quickly reduce both viral load (HBV DNA) and liver damage. But they work for only as long as we take them, and once we start, we are usually committed to years of treatment. Quitting antivirals before we’ve achieved undetectable viral load and lost the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) often results in a resurgence of both viral load and liver damage. Antivirals are a long-term treatment that help prolong our lives.
  4. Demand to be screened for liver cancer. Some experts say current medical guidelines that recommend when we should be screened for liver cancer  don’t go far enough to protect us. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Experts say a cure is coming … so stay informed about new drug developments and clinical trials. There is lots happening on the research front. To find out what drugs are in the development pipeline, visit the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Drug Watch page for the latest news. You can also find out if you qualify for a clinical trial. Expensive blood work, treatment medications, and doctor’s visits are usually free-of-charge for those accepted into a study. The foundation features a list of hepatitis B-related clinical trials that are recruiting patients in the U.S. and around the world at its Clinical Trials page. You could become part of the cure.
  7. Pregnant with hepatitis B? Get your viral load tested and ask your doctor about antivirals. In November, the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) for the first time recommended 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) starting at their 28th week of pregnancy. 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.
  8. 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 remains in the U.S. and abroad. 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?
  9. Practice safe sex and never re-use needles. Today, in some areas of the U.S., hepatitis B is increasing—even though a safe and effective vaccine exists. Unfortunately, not everyone is immunized and the infection is still getting transmitted sexually. In the midst of America’s heroin epidemic, it’s also spreading when syringes are re-used and shared. Do you want to end hepatitis B? Make sure your friends and family members know how to prevent sexually-transmitted infections (even if those conversations are challenging, their lives may depend on it) and support needle exchange programs in your region and state. Countless studies show that when needle exchange programs are available, HIV, hepatitis B and C rates decline! It saves lives and healthcare dollars!
  10. 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.

Continue reading "Ten Things People with Hepatitis B Need to Know in 2016"

The Importance of Advocating for Our Health, and Facing Our Fears

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

Early detection of cancer saves lives. Whether it’s breast, liver, or skin cancer, when it’s found and treated early, our survival improves markedly.

But here’s the rub. We intellectually know that early detection works, but performing those self-breast exams or getting screened for liver cancer carries a huge risk – what if something is found?

Every trip to the doctor or lab reminds us of our mortality, especially when we have hepatitis B. We have to take that risk and acknowledge our mortality, even when the healthcare system doesn’t make it easy.

A few months ago, the Hepatitis B Foundation assembled national experts to discuss how well the system worked to identify and treat liver cancer, which is now one of the top causes of cancer deaths. Worldwide, today hepatitis B causes 45 percent of liver cancers.

Their findings, published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, paint a dismal picture of a healthcare system that often fails us, our family members, and our friends who live with hepatitis B and are at risk of liver cancer. Not only are providers failing to screen a large percentage of at-risk patients, when they find liver cancer, their treatment is often inadequate and inconsistent across clinics.

Who should be screened for liver cancer? 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.

What is the screening? A semi-annual ultrasound and blood tests to detect liver cancer are recommended, but this approach is only 70 to 80 percent effective in identifying liver cancers. This means 20 to 30 percent of people at risk of cancer won’t get diagnosed. And there are other problems.

A recent, large study of 5,000 insured hepatitis B patients in the U.S. who did not have cirrhosis found that only 6.7 percent of them had been screened properly, based on recommendations, over the four-year study. And these are the patients with insurance who have good access to healthcare. Liver cancer screening among uninsured people is downright abysmal, and usually performed only after liver cancer has progressed to an inoperable and untreatable stage.

About 60 percent received partial screens and 34 percent had not been screened at all. Those least likely to be screened lived in rural areas (where doctors had little hepatitis B expertise and were unfamiliar with current guidelines) or were coinfected with HIV.

While ultrasound exams are affordable, relatively easy to perform and widely available, the success of this screen depends entirely on the operator’s skill and experience. If the operator is having a bad day or is not trained in identifying liver cancers, small nodules or tumors can remain unnoticed, at a time when they’re in the early, treatable stage.

And then there’s obesity. Especially in the U.S., many patients with viral hepatitis and/or fatty liver-related cancer are overweight, and obesity reduces the accuracy of ultrasounds.

The advantages of blood tests is they are widely available, relatively affordable, and generally require only a blood sample. The disadvantages is they are not highly accurate, especially when tumors are small (and still treatable). The most well-studied and commonly-used blood test is the alpha fetoprotein (AFP) test, but it is so unreliable that current guidelines says that an ultrasound must be used with it.

You might think with so much stacked against early detection of liver cancer, why bother? Because we owe it to ourselves and our families and friends.

Even when faced with an imperfect healthcare system, we need to overcome our fears, find out our risk factors, and ask for screening even when our doctors fail to recommend it.

The study, Hepatitis-Associated Liver Cancer: Gaps and Opportunities to Improve Care, was written by experts from the Hepatitis B Foundation and its Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Liver Disease and Hepatitis Program, Drexel University’s School of Public Health, the Fox Chase Cancer Center, and the University of Toronto.