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Ten Things People with Hepatitis B Need to Know in 2016

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In 2015, doctors continued to unlock the mysteries of hepatitis B and uncovered promising new treatments. Armed with new information, here are 10 things we can do in 2016 to safeguard our health and help prevent the spread of hepatitis B.

  1. Get monitored regularly. No one likes a blood draw or to be reminded they have hepatitis B, but it’s important that you’re tested annually or more often if you have a high viral load and/or signs of liver damage. There’s no cure yet, but there are effective treatment options with more in the pipeline. So be brave, protect your health, and go to the lab for a blood test.
  2. If you’ve been prescribed an antiviral, don’t forget to take it. Taking a pill every day is tedious and it’s tempting to skip it, but failing to take your daily antiviral reduces its effectiveness and can lead to drug resistance. The hepatitis B virus is a master at mutating to escape whatever is attacking it. Forgetting to take your daily pill can lead to an uptick in your viral load and liver damage. Stay strong, take your daily pill, and keep that virus undetectable.
  3. Face it, antivirals are a long-term commitment. Until a cure is developed, antivirals—either tenofovir (Viread) or entecavir (Baraclude)—are the best treatment to quickly reduce both viral load (HBV DNA) and liver damage. But they work for only as long as we take them, and once we start, we are usually committed to years of treatment. Quitting antivirals before we’ve achieved undetectable viral load and lost the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) often results in a resurgence of both viral load and liver damage. Antivirals are a long-term treatment that help prolong our lives.
  4. Demand to be screened for liver cancer. Some experts say current medical guidelines that recommend when we should be screened for liver cancer  don’t go far enough to protect us. So take charge of your health and ask for a liver cancer screen, which includes a semi-annual blood test and an ultrasound.  Hepatitis B-infected Asian men (or of Asian descent) over age 40 years and Asian women over age 50 years, patients with a family history of liver cancer, patients with cirrhosis, and Africans over the age of 20 should all be screened. Think you’re not at risk for cancer because you take antivirals? Think again. Antivirals help reduce liver damage, but if you’ve had cirrhosis or are older, the risk of liver cancer remains.
  5. If someone promises a new cure or treatment that sounds too good to be true….it probably is. In our search to be rid of hepatitis B, we may be tempted to yield to clever marketing and try a supplement that promises to cure us. But first, do your homework and practice precaution. To check out an herbal supplement, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s website to see what scientific evidence exists for a supplement and talk to your doctor. There is no magic bullet that will cure hepatitis B. Experts hope to find one soon, but for now be patient and stay skeptical. If you want to safeguard your health, eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
  6. Experts say a cure is coming … so stay informed about new drug developments and clinical trials. There is lots happening on the research front. To find out what drugs are in the development pipeline, visit the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Drug Watch page for the latest news. You can also find out if you qualify for a clinical trial. Expensive blood work, treatment medications, and doctor’s visits are usually free-of-charge for those accepted into a study. The foundation features a list of hepatitis B-related clinical trials that are recruiting patients in the U.S. and around the world at its Clinical Trials page. You could become part of the cure.
  7. Pregnant with hepatitis B? Get your viral load tested and ask your doctor about antivirals. In November, the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) for the first time recommended that pregnant women with viral loads (HBV DNA) higher than 200,000 IU/mL (or 1 million copies/mL) receive an antiviral (either tenofovir or telbivudine) starting at their 28th week of pregnancy. The antivirals won’t hurt you or your baby and will reduce the risk that your baby will be infected with hepatitis B to nearly zero, as long as your baby gets the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) within 12 hours of birth.
  8. Fight discrimination against hepatitis B and know your rights. Hepatitis B should never be a barrier to the education or job you want. Sadly, ignorance and stigma remains in the U.S. and abroad. It depends on us, our friends, and our family, to stand up and fight for our civil rights. We can’t back down. If we don’t fight, who will?
  9. Practice safe sex and never re-use needles. Today, in some areas of the U.S., hepatitis B is increasing—even though a safe and effective vaccine exists. Unfortunately, not everyone is immunized and the infection is still getting transmitted sexually. In the midst of America’s heroin epidemic, it’s also spreading when syringes are re-used and shared. Do you want to end hepatitis B? Make sure your friends and family members know how to prevent sexually-transmitted infections (even if those conversations are challenging, their lives may depend on it) and support needle exchange programs in your region and state. Countless studies show that when needle exchange programs are available, HIV, hepatitis B and C rates decline! It saves lives and healthcare dollars!
  10. Be brave, disclose, and get your friends, family, and lovers screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated. Yes, it will be one of the hardest conversations you will ever have, but if you are infected with hepatitis B, you need to disclose your infection to people who may be at risk. If you just discovered you have chronic hepatitis B, which you may have contracted at birth, you need to tell your siblings and your mother and get them screened and immunized if needed. Dating someone, and about to take the next step? You need to disclose ahead of time and give them information and choices. It builds trust and it’s the right thing to do. You would want the same for yourself.

Continue reading "Ten Things People with Hepatitis B Need to Know in 2016"

The Importance of Advocating for Our Health, and Facing Our Fears

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

Early detection of cancer saves lives. Whether it’s breast, liver, or skin cancer, when it’s found and treated early, our survival improves markedly.

But here’s the rub. We intellectually know that early detection works, but performing those self-breast exams or getting screened for liver cancer carries a huge risk – what if something is found?

Every trip to the doctor or lab reminds us of our mortality, especially when we have hepatitis B. We have to take that risk and acknowledge our mortality, even when the healthcare system doesn’t make it easy.

A few months ago, the Hepatitis B Foundation assembled national experts to discuss how well the system worked to identify and treat liver cancer, which is now one of the top causes of cancer deaths. Worldwide, today hepatitis B causes 45 percent of liver cancers.

Their findings, published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, paint a dismal picture of a healthcare system that often fails us, our family members, and our friends who live with hepatitis B and are at risk of liver cancer. Not only are providers failing to screen a large percentage of at-risk patients, when they find liver cancer, their treatment is often inadequate and inconsistent across clinics.

Who should be screened for liver cancer? Hepatitis B-infected Asian men (or of Asian descent) over age 40 years and Asian women over age 50 years, patients with a family history of liver cancer, patients with cirrhosis, and Africans over the age of 20 should all be screened.

What is the screening? A semi-annual ultrasound and blood tests to detect liver cancer are recommended, but this approach is only 70 to 80 percent effective in identifying liver cancers. This means 20 to 30 percent of people at risk of cancer won’t get diagnosed. And there are other problems.

A recent, large study of 5,000 insured hepatitis B patients in the U.S. who did not have cirrhosis found that only 6.7 percent of them had been screened properly, based on recommendations, over the four-year study. And these are the patients with insurance who have good access to healthcare. Liver cancer screening among uninsured people is downright abysmal, and usually performed only after liver cancer has progressed to an inoperable and untreatable stage.

About 60 percent received partial screens and 34 percent had not been screened at all. Those least likely to be screened lived in rural areas (where doctors had little hepatitis B expertise and were unfamiliar with current guidelines) or were coinfected with HIV.

While ultrasound exams are affordable, relatively easy to perform and widely available, the success of this screen depends entirely on the operator’s skill and experience. If the operator is having a bad day or is not trained in identifying liver cancers, small nodules or tumors can remain unnoticed, at a time when they’re in the early, treatable stage.

And then there’s obesity. Especially in the U.S., many patients with viral hepatitis and/or fatty liver-related cancer are overweight, and obesity reduces the accuracy of ultrasounds.

The advantages of blood tests is they are widely available, relatively affordable, and generally require only a blood sample. The disadvantages is they are not highly accurate, especially when tumors are small (and still treatable). The most well-studied and commonly-used blood test is the alpha fetoprotein (AFP) test, but it is so unreliable that current guidelines says that an ultrasound must be used with it.

You might think with so much stacked against early detection of liver cancer, why bother? Because we owe it to ourselves and our families and friends.

Even when faced with an imperfect healthcare system, we need to overcome our fears, find out our risk factors, and ask for screening even when our doctors fail to recommend it.

The study, Hepatitis-Associated Liver Cancer: Gaps and Opportunities to Improve Care, was written by experts from the Hepatitis B Foundation and its Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Liver Disease and Hepatitis Program, Drexel University’s School of Public Health, the Fox Chase Cancer Center, and the University of Toronto.

The Veterans Administration Ignores an Enemy on the Homefront: Hepatitis B

Courtesy of the U.S. Defense Health Agency.
Courtesy of the U.S. Defense Health Agency.

With Veterans Day comes reports about the lack of adequate mental health care for men and women returning from war. There is another, invisible health issue threatening veterans of all ages–hepatitis B.

Few veterans have ever been screened or treated for hepatitis B though their infection rate is four-times the national average.

The percentage of veterans infected with hepatitis B may actually be higher, but no one knows. Only 15 percent of U.S. veterans have ever been screened for hepatitis B. Among the few screened and diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B, only 25 percent have received antiviral treatment and only 13 percent have been screened for liver cancer. Continue reading "The Veterans Administration Ignores an Enemy on the Homefront: Hepatitis B"

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"

When Is That Pain Hep B-related and When Is It Something Else?

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When people with chronic hepatitis B experience abdominal pain, we often wonder if it’s related to our liver and if our hepatitis B is getting worse.

According to experts, hepatitis B rarely causes abdominal pain. Here are some insights to help you understand what might be behind your abdominal pain when you live with chronic hepatitis B.

First, it’s not called the silent infection for nothing. When first infected, most children and nearly 70 percent of adults never experience any direct symptoms from hepatitis B. When people do have symptoms, such as aches, nausea and fever, they usually last for only a few days. Only a very small percentage have symptoms that persist long-term. Continue reading "When Is That Pain Hep B-related and When Is It Something Else?"

Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Why Testing for Liver Damage Still Matters

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Around the world, older adults bear the greatest burden of hepatitis B. Born before the childhood vaccination became available, about 4.7 percent of U.S. adults over age 50 have been infected and their chronic hepatitis B rate is nearly two-fold higher than in younger adults.

The 50-plus generation has lived with with chronic hepatitis B for decades, and over time their risk of liver damage, cirrhosis, and cancer has steadily increased. That is why it is very important that older adults living with this infection see their physicians regularly and have tests for liver damage and cancer performed as needed. Continue reading "Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Why Testing for Liver Damage Still Matters"

Do You Have to Tell Your Employer About Your Hepatitis B?

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

“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.

During the application process or job interview, can an employer ask about my health? Continue reading "Do You Have to Tell Your Employer About Your Hepatitis B?"

Expert Calls for Viral Load Testing in All Pregnant Women with Hepatitis B

Dr. Ravi Jhaveri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, talks to parents.
Dr. Ravi Jhaveri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, talks to parents.

Today, all pregnant women are routinely screened for hepatitis B, but a growing number of doctors say this single test doesn’t go far enough to protect the health of women and children.

In a commentary published in the medical journal Pediatrics,  infectious disease specialist Dr. Ravi Jhaveri calls for a mandatory second test in pregnant women infected with hepatitis B. This test would measure the amount of hepatitis B virus (HBV) in her body (called viral load).

When women have high viral loads, their newborns can become infected even if they are immunized at birth and treated with HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) to prevent infection. Continue reading "Expert Calls for Viral Load Testing in All Pregnant Women with Hepatitis B"

Do You Know Your Hepatitis Facts from Fiction?

Hepatitis-Awareness-Month(2)
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month!

In recognition of May as Hepatitis Awareness Month, Liver Cancer Connect reviews some important facts and dangerous fiction about chronic hepatitis B and C- the world’s leading causes of liver cancer.  Continue reading "Do You Know Your Hepatitis Facts from Fiction?"