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Diagnosing Hepatitis Delta in the U.S.

Robert Gish, MD

David Hillyard, MD

Hepatitis D, or hepatitis delta, is the most severe form of viral hepatitis known to humans. The hepatitis D virus infects the liver and is dependent on the hepatitis B virus to reproduce. This means that people who are already infected with hepatitis B are at risk of contracting hepatitis D as well.

Worldwide, more than 257 million people live with hepatitis B and of this number, an estimated 15-20 million are also infected with the hepatitis delta virus (HDV). While uncommon in the United States, HDV co-infection is more common in parts of the world such as China, Russia, Middle East, Mongolia, Romania, Georgia, Turkey, Pakistan, Africa, and the Amazonian river basin. For this reason, it is important to test hepatitis B patients who originate from these higher endemic areas for 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 also be tested. Fatty liver disease (caused by obesity) and liver damage from alcohol or environmental toxins should be ruled out as causes of liver damage before testing for HDV.  Hepatitis D infections lead to more serious liver disease than hepatitis B infection alone. It is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis, increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure. This is why it is so important that people with hepatitis B and D coinfection are diagnosed before it can lead to severe complications.

Robert Gish, MD, Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director, and David Hillyard, MD, Medical Director, Molecular Infectious Diseases, ARUP Laboratories, tackled the topic of diagnosing hepatitis D in a webinar in October. Dr. Gish also answered additional questions, which are featured below:

  • What is the first step in diagnosing an HDV patient?

The HDV antibody test (anti-HDV) is the first test that is run to see if a patient has been infected with hepatitis delta. Because this test will be positive even if a patient has cleared a hepatitis delta infection, it is followed up with an HDV RNA test, which determines an active infection. There is also an antibody test (anti-HDV igM) that can test for an acute active infection.

  • Are there tests available in the US that can detect the HDV genotypes or just genotype I?

Although there have been 8 genotypes of HDV identified, each with their own distinct progression outcomes, genotype testing in the US remains rare and often difficult to acquire.

  • What is the role of measuring HDV RNA in monitoring chronic HDV progression or response to treatment?

The most effective way to understand the progression of a hepatitis D infection is to use liver ultrasounds, elastrography and fibroscans. These tests can evaluate the health of the liver. Declining HDV RNA level usually indicates a positive response to treatment.

  • Is there value to testing patients for a disease for which there are not many treatments?

Because patients who are coinfected with B and D have twice the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer compared to monoinfected patients, it is an important diagnosis to make. Although there is currently only 1 treatment, lives are still being saved.

  • Should primary care providers be testing high-risk patients for HBV and HDV at the same time?

No, providers should only test patients who already have hepatitis B. One in twenty people with hepatitis B are thought to also be infected with hepatitis D. Bottom line: testing for hepatitis D is a simple blood test that could change the course of treatment and save your patient’s life!

If you do find out that you have hepatitis D, it can be overwhelming and scary. However, knowing the basics can help you manage your diagnosis. Through the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Hep Delta Connect program, you can get information on how to protect your loved ones, find a physician, and seek out support.

For more information, please click here or visit our Hepatitis Delta Connect program website. Please also contact Sierra Pellechio, the Program Manager for Hepatitis Delta Connect program at sierra.pellechio@hepb.org for any questions.

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.

Hepatitis B Foundation Launches Education Initiative for People Coinfected with Hepatitis B and D

hepc-graphicBy Sierra Pellechio

The Hepatitis B Foundation is excited to launch the Hepatitis Delta Connect program to provide education and resources for patients and families affected by hepatitis D, the most aggressive form of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis D infection requires the presence of the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), so only people already infected with hepatitis B can become infected with hepatitis D.

There is a large gap in knowledge and awareness about this virus, and the foundation is working to provide easily-accessible information and support to those in need.

Because the hepatitis D virus (HDV) is acquired only if a hepatitis B infection is present, it can be effectively prevented through hepatitis B vaccination. While hepatitis D is not common in the United States, worldwide it affects 15-20 million people.

Areas with the highest rates of hepatitis D infection rate include China, Russia, the Middle East, Mongolia, Romania, Georgia, Turkey, Pakistan, Africa and the Amazonian river basin. It is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood and bodily fluids, and most commonly affects high-risk groups such as intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men or have multiple sexual partners, and people emigrating from countries where hepatitis D is common.

Hepatitis D can be acquired either through coinfection (becoming infected with hepatitis D and B at the same time) or a super-infection (becoming infected with hepatitis D after a person has hepatitis B). A coinfection generally resolves spontaneously after about six months, but it can sometimes result in life-threatening or fatal liver failure. Like hepatitis B, hepatitis D may not present with any symptoms, so getting a simple blood test is the only way to know if you are infected.

Hepatitis B Foundation Health Outreach Coordinator Sierra Pellechio
Hepatitis B Foundation Health Outreach Coordinator Sierra Pellechio

Treatment options are limited, but pegylated interferon has shown some effectiveness in a small percentage of patients (less than 30 percent). The good news is that there are five promising drugs currently in clinical trials. Visit our HDV Drug Watch and Clinical Trials page for more information about these drugs. We at the Hepatitis B Foundation appreciate the support of Eiger Biopharmaceuticals to help launch this valuable patient-focused program.

Hepatitis D is a complicated virus, and for this reason, it is very important for patients to find a knowledgeable liver specialist (or hepatologist) who can provide the best care and management.

The most important message for those living with hepatitis B is to get a simple blood test to find out if they have hepatitis D if they believe they are at risk. There are promising new treatments that could help prevent the serious complications related to a hepatitis B and D coinfection.

As the coordinator of Hepatitis Delta Connect, I am thrilled about this opportunity to help create a resource for patients who are living with hepatitis D. My experience in health literacy and community outreach blend with my commitment to support those in need, allowing me to promote the project in ways that will help raise the visibility of hepatitis D and let the 15-20 million infected people know that they are not alone.

In addition to our website, please email questions to connect@hepdconnect.org follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@hepbdconnect) to join the global conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.

Hepatitis D Coinfection with Hepatitis B

Hepatitis D virus (HDV) – the “D” is for delta – is a viral enigma that doesn’t act like a normal virus. It is helpless – that is, it can’t infect a cell – without its viral accomplice, the hepatitis B virus (HBV), and makes infection with HBV worse.

Delta virus can only cause illness in those already infected with HBV, said Timothy Block, Ph.D., President and Co-Founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation, Professor and Director, Drexel University Institute for Biotechnology and Virology Research.

“It can take quiescent HBV and turn it into an acute, lethal viral infection,” Block said. “Liver disease – cirrhosis, liver failure – that might take decades to develop or could only take a year or two. Delta virus converts HBV infection into an emergency situation.”

“It’s one of the most severe forms of human viral hepatitis,” said Jeffrey Glenn, MD, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford Cancer Institute.

“Delta virus is a parasite of HBV because it encodes its own genome and coat-like protein but it doesn’t make its own envelope protein,” Glenn explained. “It steals that from HBV. It needs the B envelope protein to make its own, and this provides a means to infect new cells and subsequently make a fully formed viral particle to get out of those cells to infect others.”

Individuals can acquire delta virus two ways: Either after infection with HBV, which is called a “superinfection” and more likely to stay chronic, or a “co-infection”, which entails becoming infected with both viruses at the same time. In the latter, acute infections are more severe and increase the likelihood of developing liver disease much more quickly.

Worldwide, more than 15 million are infected, though fewer than 100,000 in the U.S. have the virus. It is concentrated in particular regions worldwide. Mediterranean areas such as southern Italy and southern Greece, for example, have larger than usual numbers of affected individuals, and in Turkey it is endemic. There are eight reported genotypes of HDV, which vary by geographical distribution and pathogenicity. Some believe that HDV’s incidence is declining. This is likely due to the hepatitis B vaccined and the resulting decrease in HBV carriers.

Because HDV is not a huge problem in the U.S., it flies under the radar screen of public awareness. Screening for HDV is not routinely ordered; however, infection with delta virus should always be considered when a patient with chronic liver disease suddenly gets worse.

Researchers have been frustrated in their attempts to develop effective treatments against HDV. Newer antiviral drugs that keep down levels of HBV DNA don’t do much against delta virus because they don’t affect the HBV envelope protein. The response rate to pegylated interferon alpha is typically poor.

With research there is always hope. Currently, there is a clinical trial of lonafarnib for the treatment of those coinfected with hepatitis B and D in the United States. It was originally developed for the treatment of different types of cancers. Perhaps additional information will come out of this year’s International Meeting on Molecular Biology of Hepatitis B Viruses. We shall soon hear.

Hepatitis D Fast facts:

—   Delta hepatitis is one of the most severe forms of viral hepatitis.

—   It is an incomplete viral particle that was discovered in 1997.

—   Approximately 15 million people are infected with HDV worldwide.

—   In the U.S., an estimated 6,000-13,000 people suffer acute HDV infection 
each year; 30,000 suffer from chronic HDV; and 1,000 Americans die 
from HDV-related diseases annually.

—   It is transmitted by blood from people already infected with hepatitis B.

—   Preventing hepatitis B, especially vaccination, will prevent HDV.

—   There is currently no effective treatment for HDV