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.
If antiviral medications almost always lower viral loads, why don’t doctors treat young adults with high viral loads with this daily pill? After all, don’t high viral loads lead to liver damage and even liver cancer?
This is one of the most common questions posed to the Hepatitis B Foundation, and at first glance the decision not to treat a high viral load with antivirals seems counter-intuitive or plain wrong. If antivirals reduce the number of hepatitis B virus (HBV) in the body, won’t that give the immune system an opportunity to clear out the remaining residual HBV?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It’s complicated, as are many aspect of hepatitis B.
It’s common for young adults (up to age 30) who live with hepatitis B to be in the “immune tolerant” stage of infection with extremely high viral load (HBV DNA) but with no signs of liver damage.
When we’re born to mothers infected with hepatitis B, unless we’re immunized at birth 90 percent of us become infected from exposure to infectious blood and body fluids during delivery. And when infants are infected, their immature immune systems don’t recognize the virus. The young immune system misses the “red flag” signature on this hepatitis B virus and “tolerates” the infection instead of attacking it.
In contrast, when we’re infected as healthy adults, our immune systems immediately detect and identify hepatitis B as a viral invader and aggressively attacks the virus and any infected liver cells. In adults, it generally can take up to six months for the immune system to eradicate the virus. When we’re infected as children, it can take up to three or even four decades for our immune systems to notice the virus and shift into “immune active” battle mode.
Until the immune systems notice the virus and begins to fight the infection, children and young adults remain in the “immune tolerant” stage, with sky high viral loads that can reach 1 billion international units per milliliter (IU/mL). Unencumbered by an immune system that’s on the offense, the virus hijacks liver cells to replicate and churn out more virus.
Because the immune system isn’t attacking and damaging the infected liver cells, liver tests (ALT or SGPT) results show no signs of damage and usually remain in the normal range (30 or less for men and 19 or less for women). And until our immune systems wake up and launches its attack, doctors say there is no reason to try to lower the viral load in these young adults because even when antivirals lower viral load, the immune system stays dormant and doesn’t go on the offensive.
Experts recently re-examined whether this hands-off approach was still valid and reviewed more than a dozen studies that examined whether antiviral treatment benefited immune-tolerant adults.
At the November 2015 AASLD Liver Conference, researchers reported, “There are no studies demonstrating that antiviral therapy is beneficial in reducing rates of liver cancer, cirrhosis, and liver-related death in persons with immune-tolerant chronic hepatitis B.”
Following their instruction to “first do no harm,” the experts recommended, “Given the lack of evidence of benefit to those with (high viral load and normal ALT levels), the potential harms of finite (or longer) antiviral therapy, including cost, antiviral drug side effects, and development of resistance, outweigh benefits.”
Let’s explore their rationale:
Antivirals work for only as long as you take them. Once started because of liver damage, patients can be on them for many years, and when patients go off antivirals, they often experience a “flare” with a sudden increase in viral load and ALT levels that can be dangerous.
The leading antivirals, including tenofovir (Viread) and entecavir (Baraclude), are not cheap, especially tenofovir which is not yet available in a generic formula.
And antivirals have side effects, which can include bone loss, impact on kidney function, and a risk of developing drug resistance.
So, if treatment will not yield good results, why put young adults through the cost and medical risk? In fact, experts don’t even treat immune-tolerant patients who have family members with hepatitis B-related liver cancer.
The experts did make clear that all immune-tolerant patients should have their ALT levels and viral load checked at least every six months so doctors could monitor their infection.
Still, this is challenging to hear when we are living with hepatitis B or just recently diagnosed with a chronic infection. We want to do something to fight the infection. But without an active immune system as a strategic partner in our fight against hepatitis B, we must be patient and let go of a quick-fix hope, as much as we all want a magic pill to cure our infection.
So in the interim, until our immune systems wake up and starting fighting the virus in our bodies, we do what we can to protect our health, including eating healthy foods, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and getting monitored every six months. It may not feel like it’s enough, but for now it’s all we can do.
“Do I have to tell my new employer about my hepatitis B?”
After years of cautiously completing medical forms for schools, camps and college, my daughter’s question took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. Many jobs—even when they don’t involve direct medical care—require a physical exam and confirmation of hepatitis B immunization.
There may be a safe and effective vaccine and new treatments for hepatitis B, but ignorance and stigma remain stubbornly entrenched in many HR departments. So here is what every job applicant, employee and employer should know about hepatitis B and employment.