Do you know the stage or phase of your chronic hepatitis B infection? Quite often people may refer to themselves as “hepatitis B carriers”. This statement by itself does not really say anything about your chronic HBV infection except that you are someone who tests positive for hepatitis B, and that you are HBsAg positive. The names of the stages or phases of HBV have changed a bit over the years, but they reflect the natural history of the virus. It is important for your doctor to determine if you are in the immune tolerant, immune active or clearance phase, the inactive carrier phase, have developed HBe negative chronic HBV, or if you are in an HBsAg negative phase. It may take a few months or even half a year to accurately determine the phase, and then your doctor can talk to you about possible treatment options and whether or not treatment would benefit you at this time. Remember, HBV is typically not an emergency, so try to relax with the process knowing you may not have immediate answers.
If you are acutely infected, you also follow the natural course of the virus in a matter of months (clearance of an acute HBV infection within 6 months is considered an acute HBV infection). However, at the end of 4-6 months, those acutely infected will have a resolved infection, and will no longer be HBsAg+. If you are chronically infected, you will pass through many of these phases too, but unfortunately you will likely never get to an HBsAg negative or resolved phase. The journey from phase to phase is different for each person and the time it takes to move through these phases varies along with the amount of liver damage that occurs. The importance of a good liver specialist cannot be over emphasized. These stages and phases may seem simple to understand, but not everything is black and white, and the gray between phases, time between phases, lab and other diagnostic data collected, varies with each patient. The importance of being actively involved in your hepatitis B care can also not be overstated. Tracking your lab data over time and putting it into an excel spreadsheet or graphing the data may help you understand what is happening with the virus and may even be helpful for your doctor, so don’t forget to request copies of all lab results.
Once you have confirmed that you have chronic HBV, you need further testing to determine your HBeAg status. Those with chronic HBV are either HBeAg positive or negative. If you are HBeAg positive, you have a higher HBV viral load and are more infectious to others. People who are HBeAg positive are either in the immune tolerant stage or the immune clearance stage. Additional labs will clarify this for your doctor.
If you are in the immune tolerant stage, you are HBeAg positive and have a high viral load. You will have normal or very mildly elevated ALT (SGPT) levels and mild or no inflammation or damage to the liver. This is very common with chronically infected young children who may have viral loads in the millions or even billions. During this time the virus is actively replicating in the liver, but the immune system has not recognized the virus so it is not trying to kill the infected liver cells. It is not the replication of the virus that kills liver cells, causing liver damage, but it is the response of your immune system killing these infected liver cells. So, during the immune tolerant phase the virus is happily replicating, completely unchecked by the immune system, which accounts for the high viral load and lack of liver damage during this time. People in the immune tolerant phase may remain in this phase for a couple of years, or it may be decades. Treatment is not typically recommended during this phase, but this trend seems to be changing even with children. (The idea is to prevent integration of the HBV cccDNA into the host DNA.) Certainly for those that have been in this phase for decades, treatment is something that may be recommended by your liver specialist.
What happens when you move into the immune clearance phase? Read more.