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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.

Is Fasting Safe for People Living with Hepatitis B?

Courtesy of Pixabay.
Courtesy of Pixabay.

By Christine Kukka

If you have hepatitis B  and you’re considering fasting to lose weight, celebrate Ramadan or “detox” your liver, think again and talk to your doctor first.

Fasting can lower blood sugar, zap your energy, stress your immune system and be life-threatening for people suffering liver damage from viral hepatitis.

“Fasting for very limited periods of time may be safe if you have no signs of liver damage—indicated by normal liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT) or an ultrasound exam of the liver,” said Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish. However, if you have liver damage (with ALT/SGPT levels exceeding 30 in men and 19 in women) and are taking medications to treat hepatitis B, research shows fasting may exacerbate liver damage.

Is limited fasting safe? Culturally, fasting is practiced to bring people closer to their spirituality and increase empathy for those living in poverty. For Muslims, fasting is practiced during Ramadan (beginning May 26 and ending June 25). During Ramadan, Muslims are instructed to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Image courtesy of Prakairoj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Prakairoj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Historically, Islamic teachings allow pregnant women and people with serious medical conditions to break with tradition and eat and drink during daylight hours if their health is at risk. Rawalpindi Medical College Principal and Professor of Medicine Dr. Muhammad Umar of Pakistan explained that if hepatitis B and C patients are healthy, they can safely fast during the day. But if they are taking antiviral medications, or have serious liver damage such as cirrhosis (liver scarring) or ascites (distention of abdomen due to the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity) or liver cancer, fasting is not allowed.

There is little research about what impact limited fasting has on people with chronic hepatitis B. A report in the Journal of Virology that studied the effect of fasting in hepatitis B-infected transgenic mice found that fasting increased viral load and production of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). Other reports suggest that hepatitis B viral production in the liver is strongly influenced by a person’s nutritional intake.

Bottom line: Hepatitis B patients with liver damage should not fast, and “healthy” people living with chronic hepatitis B should talk to their doctors before embarking on any kind of fasting program.

Courtesy of Pixabay.
Courtesy of Pixabay.

Does fasting help us lose weight and reduce the risk of “fatty liver?” No. Nearly all medical experts agree fasting is not a healthy way to lose weight. When you fast, you lose fluid quickly, and your weight comes back quickly as soon as you start drinking water and hydrating yourself again.

Many experts say fasting makes it harder to lose weight because it slows your metabolic rate so you process food slower. While fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan may not pose a medical risk if you’re healthy, if you go for long periods without eating, your immune system weakens and isn’t able to suppress a hepatitis B infection effectively.

“A weight loss program that works should include proper nutrition, exercise and portion control,” explained Dr. Gish. He has designed a weight loss guide and contract for patients and doctors that offers guidelines for achieving healthy, long-term weight loss. Dr. Gish’s dieting recommendations include:

  • Keep a diary of everything you eat;
  • Exercise three hours a week;
  • Eat five small meals a day (150 to 200 calories each) using tea cup saucers for plates with no second servings;
  • And, use glass cups or bottles for drinks, instead of plastic bottles that may contain toxic bis-Phenols (BP).

Will fasting “detox” your body or liver? Most doctors say no. There there is no scientific evidence that shows fasting removes toxins from the body or the liver, because our organs are already very adept at doing that very effectively.

The liver, for example, is a natural detox center as long as it gets the water and nutrients needed to perform the job. Toxins don’t build up in the liver, it’s the liver’s job to break them down and dispose of them. Toxins can build up in fatty tissue, however, which is why a sustained, long-term weight-loss plan involving exercise and a healthy, low-fat diet is recommended.

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month

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

By Christine Kukka

In an era of hepatitis B immunization and improved health care, an alarming trend is happening — liver cancer is increasing and is now the second-leading cause of cancer deaths around the world.

This is why it’s critical that everyone living with hepatitis B should demand to be screened for liver cancer. There are three key reasons why liver cancer rates remain high:

  • Too few people are tested for hepatitis B, which is why two-thirds of Americans living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected.
  • Only 20 percent of doctors follow liver cancer screening guidelines and test at-risk hepatitis B patients for liver cancer. By the time liver cancer is diagnosed, it’s often too late for effective treatment.
  • And, screening guidelines themselves are inadequate and fail to use valuable blood tests that help identify liver cancer in its early, treatable stages.

Today, the majority of liver cancer cases occur in developing countries, fueled by undiagnosed and untreated hepatitis B. More than 80 percent of these cancers are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Asia where more than 20 of every 100,000 people will suffer and die from liver cancer.

But make no mistake, liver cancer happens in North America and Europe too. Because people aren’t effectively screened for hepatitis B and liver cancer, an estimated 10 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B will develop liver cancer in developed countries. Most face a bleak outlook, only 20 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer survive beyond five years.

But you can beat these odds. In celebration of Liver Cancer Awareness Month, we need to insist that our doctors screen us for liver cancer. When diagnosed early, treatment succeeds and survival improves markedly.

Medical guidelines that recommend when and how we are tested for liver screening vary dramatically around the world, but most of them are inadequate, according to a recent report. The U.S. and European guidelines, for example, recommend an ultrasound of the liver every six months.

But an increasing number of experts, including Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish, are promoting the combined use of an ultrasound plus two blood tests — for alpha fetoprotein (AFP) and des-gamma carboxyprothrombin (DCP) — to help identify liver cancer in its early, treatable stages.

Current medical guidelines recommend anyone with cirrhosis (liver scarring) should be screened every six months for liver cancer because 80 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer also have cirrhosis. The guidelines also state that patients who have a family history of liver cancer, are coinfected with HIV or hepatitis C, or who are young males of African descent should also be tested for cancer at any age.

Many of us don’t have these risk factors, but we are still at risk. Our liver cancer incidence is much lower than if we had cirrhosis, but it’s still there and we need to be tested using the best tools available.

Age is clearly an important factor when it comes to liver cancer, especially if we have had hepatitis B for several decades, but current guidelines only provide age-specific screening recommendations in people of Asian ethnicity (men over age 40 and women over age 50).

As doctors debate whether these guidelines should be changed to promote earlier or more frequent screening, here are some questions to review with your doctor to determine if you should be screened for liver cancer:

How many years have you had hepatitis B? The longer you’re infected, the higher your risk of liver cancer. Men of African descent are found to develop liver cancer at an earlier age than other races and should be screened starting in their 20s.

What is your gender? Men are considered at higher risk of liver cancer at an earlier age because they may be more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, have more “active” hepatitis, and higher iron stores—all of which increase cancer risk. Estrogen is believed to protect pre-menopausal women against liver cancer.

Have you had a high viral load (HBV DNA) after age 30? Having a viral load exceeding 2,000 international units per milliliter (IU/mL) is associated with a higher risk of liver cancer even if you have no other signs of liver damage.

Do you have a family history of liver cancer? If an immediate family member has had liver cancer, this greatly increases your risk.

Are you overweight, or have you been diagnosed recently with type 2 diabetes? A fatty liver and/or diabetes increase your risk of liver damage and cancer dramatically when you’re also infected with hepatitis B.

Do you have hepatitis B virus genotype C or core/precore viral mutations? Originating in Asia, this hepatitis B strain is associated with loss of the hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) later in life. That means you may have had a high viral load and liver damage for a longer period than people with genotypes who clear HBeAg at a younger age. Having core or precore mutations in your HBV also increase liver cancer risk.

Talk to your doctor, even if you haven’t had liver damage and have had a low viral load or undetectable viral load for many years, ask if it’s time for a liver cancer test. For more information about liver cancer visit the Liver Cancer Connect website and for more information about screening for liver cancer, click here.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, representatives from Hep B United, CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, and the National Alliance of State and Territorial Aids Directors (NASTAD)  will be co-hosting a twitter chat at 2 p.m. EST using the hashtag #liverchat.

You’ve Lost the Hepatitis B Surface Antigen, Go Celebrate, But Keep Monitoring

By Christine Kukka

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

After years of living with “inactive’ chronic hepatitis B—with low viral load and no signs of liver damage–some patients may finally lose the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and even develop surface antibodies.

This event merits a celebration and a huge sigh of relief, but if you think you will never have to get another blood draw or worry about your liver, think again. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but hepatitis B really never goes away.

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

Think herpes, mono, or chicken pox and shingles. Children infected with chickenpox get rid of the infection and the ugly blisters, but very small amounts of the chickenpox (varicella) virus remains in the spinal nerves. As we grow older and our immune systems weaken with age,  our bodies aren’t able to suppress the varicella virus any more and it reactivates, causing painful shingles.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) behaves in the same way. When we lose HBsAg and even develop surface antibodies (anti-HBs), there are still HBV lurking in our livers. When we’re healthy, our immune systems suppress the virus and prevent any reactivation, but old age or another disease or medical condition can weaken our bodies and allow the viral infection to reactivate.

So, even after we clear HBsAg, we need to stay vigilant and continue to get our liver health monitored regularly. Here is what you need to know:

First, what are my chances of ever getting rid of HBsAg and developing the surface antibody? It can happen, especially in older adults after a long period of “inactive” hepatitis B infection.

About 1 to 3 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B lose HBsAg each year, and about half of all people with chronic infections who live up to age 75 will lose HBsAg, depending on the amount of HBV DNA in their blood.

Your chances of losing HBsAg and developing the surface antibody increase if you have a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and obesity (fatty liver). Another report found that people with the hepatitis B strain or genotype C have higher rates of clearing HBsAg over time than those with genotype B.

Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once you clear HBsAg, the chance of developing surface antibodies over the next two, five and 10 years are 24 percent, 58 percent and 78 percent respectively, according to a recent report in the September 2016 journal of Epidemiology and Infection.

After I clear HBsAg, how often do I need to get my liver health monitored? According to Dr. Robert Gish, medical director of the Hepatitis B Foundation and professor consultant of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University, once you have cleared HBsAg, 12 months later you need to:

  • Check all of your liver enzymes and liver function
  • Get your platelet count and hepatitis B blood tests done, and
  • Have an ultrasound of your liver and spleen.

These tests become your new “baseline” that your doctor can refer too in the years ahead while monitoring your liver health.

Your baseline ultrasound should examine your liver and measure its portal vein (it should be under 12 mm) and spleen (it should be under 12 cm) to make sure it’s normal with no signs of cirrhosis or portal hypertension.

If you had cirrhosis before you cleared HBsAg: You need to be surveyed for liver cancer (with an ultrasound, alpha fetoprotein (AFP) blood test and a Des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin (DCP) test) every six months for at least five years, because cirrhosis puts you at high risk of liver cancer. Once an ultrasound finds no evidence of cirrhosis and all other tests are normal, including the cancer tests, then the testing can become less frequent and your doctor can prescribe a new monitoring schedule.

If you’ve had elevated liver enzymes (called ALT or SGPT) in the past, (higher than 19 in women and 30 in men), you need to continue to get tested every six months until you’ve had two consecutive healthy ALT readings. If your ALT remains elevated, make sure you are not drinking alcohol and do not have fatty liver disease. Talk to your doctor about a new monitoring schedule.

Tell all of your current and future doctors you’ve had hepatitis B, and beware of immune-suppressing drugs used to treat various cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Our immune systems, which are working to keep the residual HBV in our bodies in check, can also take a hit from medications that deliberately suppress our immune systems in order to fight cancer, psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.

According to medical guidelines, all oncologists and other specialists who use these powerful drugs are supposed to test all  their patients for hepatitis B and carefully monitor anyone who had hepatitis B in the past, which is indicated by a positive test for the hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc).

Even if you’ve cleared HBsAg, doctors may pre-emptively treat you with antivirals during and after your treatment for cancer, immune disorders such as arthritis or psoriasis, and hepatitis C and monitor your HBsAg and viral load regularly to make sure your hepatitis B does not reactivate.

These screening guidelines exist, but no one is perfect and your oncologist may not know you’ve been infected, may forget to screen you for hepatitis B, or may not understand the testing. So, tell everyone if you have an active or resolved hepatitis B infection. The last thing you want is to be battling both cancer and a reactivated hepatitis B infection simultaneously.

While hepatitis B never really goes away, once you clear HBsAg your risk of liver damage and liver cancer diminish tremendously. It’s worth a celebration, but you need to continue to be monitored as you age.