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The Medical Community Wakes Up to a Dangerous Threat to People with Hepatitis B – Coinfection with Hepatitis D

hep DBy Christine Kukka

In the U.S. and around the world, the medical community is finally acknowledging a hidden threat to people with hepatitis B – a virulent liver coinfection that requires the presence of the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) to survive.
Hepatitis D (Delta), which causes the most severe liver infection known to humans, infects between 15 to 20 million people worldwide and an estimated 20,000 people living with chronic hepatitis B in the U.S.
For years, health officials assumed hepatitis D did not threaten Americans and occurred primarily in Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies found 4 to 5 percent of Americans with chronic hepatitis B are also infected with hepatitis D.
As a result of these findings, researchers including Hepatitis B Foundation‘s Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish, are now pushing medical organizations to establish hepatitis D testing and monitoring guidelines so doctors will start testing patients for this dangerous liver disease.
Recently, the foundation sponsored a webinar, attended by dozens of healthcare providers, patients and officials from around the world, in which Dr. Gish outlined whom should be tested for hepatitis D, and how it should be treated. A new webinar that examines hepatitis D prevalence in the U.S. is scheduled for 3 p.m. (EST), Wednesday, June 28. To register for the webinar click here.
How do people get infected with hepatitis D? Infection occurs when people are exposed to blood and body fluids from someone with an active hepatitis D infection. Basically, they get both hepatitis B and D in one exposure. This is called an acute coinfection. Some healthy adults are able to clear both infections, but they often experience serious liver damage during the clearance or recovery phase.

Another way to become infected is if someone infected with chronic hepatitis B is exposed to someone with hepatitis D. This is called a superinfection, and in 90 percent of cases, people with chronic hepatitis B will also develop chronic hepatitis D.

Who is at risk of hepatitis D? Anyone with chronic hepatitis B who themselves or their family comes from Sub-Saharan Africa, China, Russia, Middle East, Mongolia, Romania, Georgia, Turkey, Pakistan and the Amazonian River Basin should be tested. Hepatitis D rates in some of these countries can reach up to 30 percent in people infected with chronic hepatitis B.

Banner CurveWhat medical conditions suggest hepatitis D? Anyone with chronic hepatitis B who is not responding to antiviral treatment, or who has signs of liver damage even though they have a low viral load (HBV DNA below 2,000 IU/mL) should be tested. Fatty liver disease (caused by obesity) and liver damage from alcohol or environmental toxins should be ruled out before testing for hepatitis D.
Often, people with hepatitis D have low viral loads (even if they are hepatitis B “e” antigen HBeAg-positive), but they have signs of liver damage, including elevated liver enzyme (ALT/SGPT) levels.

Do hepatitis B antivirals work against hepatitis D? No. The hepatitis D virus (HDV) is structurally different from the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and does not respond to tenofovir and entecavir used to treat hepatitis B. Hepatitis B antivirals will lower HBV DNA, but they don’t reduce HBsAg, which HDV need to thrive and reproduce.

How is hepatitis D treated? The only proven hepatitis D treatment is pegylated interferon. Interferon cures hepatitis D 15 to 25 percent of the time after one year of treatment. Once interferon clears hepatitis D, doctors treat patients who continue to be infected with HBV with antivirals. There are dozens of research companies now looking into hepatitis D treatment, and if researchers can find a cure for hepatitis B that eradicates HBsAg, it will also be effective against hepatitis D.

How should people with hepatitis D be monitored? According to Dr. Gish, doctors should:

  • Monitor patients’ ALT/SGPT and liver function at least every six months
  • Perform an ultrasound of the liver and conduct a liver cancer biomarker panel (including AFP, AFPL3% and DCP) every six months;
  • And, perform viral load (HBV DNA) and HDV RNA testing every six months.

How is hepatitis D prevented? The hepatitis B vaccine prevents hepatitis D infection, as does use of safe sex and safe injection practices. According to Dr. Gish, all hepatitis B-positive pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis D if they or their families are from a country with high rates of hepatitis D, or if they have signs of liver damage — even if they do not come from a region with high hepatitis D rates.

If a pregnant woman is infected with either hepatitis B and/or hepatitis D, immunizing her newborn with the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth and giving the baby a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) will prevent both infections.

Bottom line, if you are infected with chronic hepatitis B, you should be tested for hepatitis D if:

  • You or your family comes from a region with high rates of hepatitis D; and/or
  • You have a low viral load, but you continue to have signs of liver damage, indicated by elevated ALT/SGPT or an ultrasound exam of your liver, if your doctor has ruled out fatty liver, NASH or alcohol-related liver damage.

Talk to your doctor about getting tested. Click here for a hepatitis D fact sheet to give to your doctor and click here for a patient-oriented fact sheet. An affordable hepatitis D test has recently become available in the U.S. For more information, click here.

  • Find answers to frequently-asked-questions about hepatitis D here.
  • To watch the webinar featuring Dr. Gish discussing the hidden, hepatitis D epidemic, click here.

Doctors Get a New Tool to Improve Hepatitis B Treatment and Monitoring

Photo courtesy of CDC.
Photo courtesy of CDC.

By Christine Kukka

A recently-approved test now allows doctors to measure exactly how much hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) people with chronic hepatitis B have in their blood; so why should patients get this test and how will it help the millions of people around the world infected with hepatitis B?

According to experts, including the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Medical Director Robert Gish, knowing a patient’s HBsAg levels gives doctors:

  • A better understanding of what stage of hepatitis B a patient is in;
  • A more accurate assessment of a patient’s liver cancer risk; and
  • Essential information to judge if it’s time to start or stop treatment.

And in the future, this test may be critical to finding a cure.

Don’t labs already test for HBsAg? HBsAg, the protein that makes up the surface of the virus, is what labs look for in a blood sample to determine if a person is currently infected with hepatitis B.

Historically, labs determined only if HBsAg was present or not, which is why patients either tested positive or negative for HBsAg. Recently, countries outside the U.S. began measuring HBsAg quantities in blood samples and late last year became available in the U.S. as a federally-approved (CLIA) lab test from Quest Diagnostics.

Hepatitis B Foundation President Timothy Block
Hepatitis B Foundation President Timothy Block

“The strange thing about HBsAg, is that each hepatitis B virus requires only about 100 HBsAg molecules to provide its envelope protein, but the virus produces about 100- to 1 million-times more HBsAg than is needed, leaving millions of HBsAg circulating in the bloodstream,” explained Timothy Block, president of the Hepatitis B Foundation and the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, the foundation’s research arm.

That over-abundance of HBsAg is why people continue to test positive for HBsAg even if they have an undetectable viral load (HBV DNA).

Why is there so much HBsAg? Researchers, including Block, suspect that in addition to covering the virus’ surface, HBsAg also serves as a decoy to “exhaust” or deflect our immune system’s:

  • T-cells, so they can’t attach to and attack the virus,
  • And B-cells, so they don’t generate the antibodies needed to destroy the viral antigens that make up the virus.

So when HBsAg levels decline–either due to treatment or a strong immune response to the infection–researchers know a patient is on the road to clearing the infection. Bottom line: A low or undetectable HBsAg level means patients are winning the war against hepatitis B and their risk of liver damage is greatly reduced. 

When should doctors measure HBsAg? According to Quest Diagnostics, which created the test, measuring HBsAg levels better identifies which patients are at risk of hepatitis B reactivation.

For example, a patient may be HBeAg-negative and have normal liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) that indicate a liver is “healthy,” but if HBsAg remain high, doctors know a patient remains at risk of reactivation and hasn’t really entered the safer, “inactive” stage.

Quest maintains that measuring HBsAg and viral load (HBV DNA) together, “…improves the ability to differentiate the phases in HBeAg-negative patients and HBeAg-positive disease and results in a diagnostic accuracy of 70 to 94 percent.

According to Quest, patients with HBV genotype B or C who have low HBV DNA levels (less than 2,000 IU/mL) and HBsAg levels below 1,000 IU/mL have lower risk of liver damage and cancer. In fact, if HBsAg is under 100 IU/mL, patients may be on their way to clearing HBsAg from their blood.

Dr. Robert Gish
Dr. Robert Gish

Knowing for sure when treatment is working: HBsAg levels also reflect the amount of virus protein produced by infected liver cells and if treatment is effectively stopping the virus from producing these proteins. If a patient is treated with pegylated interferon, a decline in HBsAg during the first 12 weeks indicates a successful response to the drug. No change in HBsAg levels indicates interferon will not be effective.

HBsAg changes may also determine if antivirals are working. “In HBeAg-negative patients, low (HBsAg) levels at the end of treatment are associated with sustained virologic response,” Quest officials noted.

If patients have been treated with antivirals for many months or years and achieve undetectable viral load and low HBsAg levels, doctors may consider taking them off the drug.

Dr. Gish considers this new test an essential tool that providers should employ and patients should ask for to get an accurate picture of their infection state and liver cancer risk.

“I use it today to determine when to start treatment, assess a patient’s prognosis while on treatment, enhance patient compliance and determine when treatment can be stopped or should be continued,” he explained. “And this will also be an extremely helpful tool for drug developers in the future to identify promising treatments.”

Because lowering or eradicating HBsAg appears essential to stopping chronic infection and empowering the immune system to fight this complex infection, researchers around the world are working to develop treatments that inhibit HBsAg.

“I am a big believer in finding drugs that suppress HBsAg,” Dr. Block noted. Two of these surface antigen eradicator products are currently in Phase II trials.

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.

Is Your Family Getting Together for the Holidays? Time to Discover Your Medical History

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

When we have chronic hepatitis B, knowing our family medical history can give us an inside edge to fight this infection.

Hepatitis B is an infection that often runs in families, and knowing how our parents or grandparents handled this liver disease can give us insider information about our own genetic prospects with hepatitis B.

Experts estimate that more than half of us worldwide became infected at birth. Our mothers may have been infected with hepatitis B and immunization, which can prevent infection if administered within 12 hours of birth, was not available to us as newborns, nor to our mothers or grandmothers. Continue reading "Is Your Family Getting Together for the Holidays? Time to Discover Your Medical History"

The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History

Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

For more than 20 years, I have accompanied my daughter to her annual hepatitis B check-up with her liver specialist. She is 22 and does not need me to come, but I always go out of habit and love.

After the appointment, we sit eating lunch and I talk about how lucky she is that her liver has been healthy and her viral load undetectable for many years. Recently, she started testing negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). However, she has never developed hepatitis B surface antibodies. Her immune system has cleaned house, but has lacked the power to produce enough surface antibodies to show up on lab tests and declare her free of infection.

For the second year in a row, her doctor gave her a hepatitis B vaccine shot, an experiment to see if the injection of HBsAg would spur her immune system to generate enough surface antibodies to register in a lab test. Continue reading "The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History"

Shop Carefully for the Best Insurance Plan When You Have Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With the cost of health care and prescription drugs soaring, it’s important to choose health insurance carefully when you take hepatitis B medications and need frequent check-ups and lab tests.

In the next two months, Medicare recipients, people who get insurance through their jobs and consumers buying coverage through the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will be selecting insurance plans during open enrollment.

If you take antivirals or interferon and have frequent lab tests and doctor visits, it’s important that you select the plan that:

  • Has your specialist or primary care doctor and lab in its network,
  • And offers the lowest copay for the drugs you need.

Continue reading "Shop Carefully for the Best Insurance Plan When You Have Hepatitis B"

Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The longer we have hepatitis B, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. With every decade of life, our liver cancer risk increases 2.7-times, according to a report on Viral Hepatitis in the Elderly published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

But current medical guidelines don’t spell out exactly when liver cancer testing should begin in many hepatitis B patients who don’t have liver damage (cirrhosis) or a family history of liver cancer, and are not of Asian or African descent.

Age is clearly an important factor when it comes to liver cancer, “… but current guidelines only provide age-specific recommendations for (liver cancer) surveillance in hepatitis B carriers of Asian ethnicity (men over age 40 and women over age 50),” a team of University of Miami and Veterans Affairs researchers wrote in the journal article. Continue reading "Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk"

Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It

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

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. It may be a sleeper of a event when compared to other health campaigns, but for us who live with viral hepatitis, it’s an uncomfortable but critical reminder of the importance of monitoring our liver health to prevent cancer.

Viral hepatitis, especially B and C, are viral infections that can cause liver cancer  (also called hepatocellular carcinoma or HCC.) Researchers are still studying why some people are more prone to liver cancer, but we who live with chronic hepatitis B or C have a 25 to 40 percent lifetime risk of developing liver cancer. The infection, which hijacks our liver cells to manufacture more virus, causes inflammation, scarring and even cancer as the liver cells grow out of control.

The longer we are infected with viral hepatitis, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. While liver cancer often occurs in people with cirrhosis (severe liver scarring), some of us develop cancer without cirrhosis. Continue reading "Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It"

Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most people living with chronic hepatitis B today are over age 50, and like their younger counterparts, they need to prevent spreading hepatitis B to their sexual partners, housemates, and neighbors in assisted living facilities.

You’re never too old for safe sex: You may not have to worry about pregnancy any more, but you still need to protect yourself and your partner against sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B. Using a condom (and keeping a barrier between you and potentially infectious body fluids) is essential because many seniors have not been immunized against hepatitis B.

The widespread marketing of erectile dysfunction drugs allows for sex by older men, and thinning and dryness of vaginal tissue in older women may raise their risk of infection during intercourse. Continue reading "Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter"

First World Hepatitis Summit Focuses on Global Plan for Elimination by 2030

The joint North and South Americas group build relationships across borders to eradicate hepatitis B.
The North and South Americas group builds relationships to eradicate viral hepatitis.

The mood was euphoric. It was a love fest, actually. Last week, more than 600 policy makers, public health experts, and representatives from non-governmental organizations and patient advocacy groups from 80 countries were invited to participate in the first World Hepatitis Summit in Scotland hosted by the World Hepatitis Alliance in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO). The Hepatitis B Foundation was pleased to be invited and to speak during the pre-summit meeting as well.

The message was serious. Hepatitis B and C kill more people each year than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and combined are the seventh-leading cause of death worldwide, yet viral hepatitis as a global health concern remains mostly invisible and under-funded. Continue reading "First World Hepatitis Summit Focuses on Global Plan for Elimination by 2030"