NSW HEPATITIS INFOLINE

What you need to know about hep B | part 4

What you need to know about hep B | part 4

What you need to know about hep B | part 4

This article – part 4 of 8 – was written by Dr Alice Lee , Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, Concord Repatriation General Hospital.

Liver cancer | part 1

One of the most serious complications of hepatitis B is the development of liver cancer. All people with chronic hepatitis B infection are potentially at risk of developing liver cancer. Even so, some are at higher risks than others. There are screening protocols for those at high risk, regardless everyone with hepatitis B should be considered for screening.

The primary cause of liver cancer is hepatitis B, not alcohol

High risk hepatitis B groups for increased risk of liver cancer are anyone with cirrhosis, a family history of liver cancer, and older people (men over 40 years and women over 50 years). However, people outside of this group can still develop liver cancers and they require close monitoring. As discussed previously, all people with hepatitis B require lifelong monitoring for both the liver condition and for consideration of liver cancer screening.

There are different types of cancers that can affect the liver. Primary liver cancers are cancers that develop in the liver cells – known as “hepatocytes”. Other types of liver cells such as bile duct cells can also lead to cancer, but this is not directly related to hepatitis B. Cancers from other sites can also spread to the liver so that liver cancers can be secondary to cancers that have started elsewhere. This article will discuss the primary type, which is refered to as liver cancer or hepatocellular cancer.

Liver cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world

Primary liver cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world – ranking fifth – and is the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in the world. It is one of the cancers that is continuing to increase in number. Apart from hepatitis B, there are other conditions that can increase the chance of developing liver cancer. This includes cirrhosis from any cause. This could include alcohol, fatty liver, hepatitis C, autoimmune liver disease, iron storage disease as well as metabolic conditions. Cirrhosis is a condition of severe liver scarring that covers a wide spectrum of symptoms, and so some patients may not realise that they have cirrhosis until they are very sick. It can sometimes be picked up early by blood tests as well as some imaging studies. Anyone with ongoing abnormal liver tests should ask their doctor about how their liver is doing.

It’s not easy to find liver cancer – multiple tests are needed

Screening for liver cancer is recommended in groups of patients at increased risk. This is done using a liver ultrasound and, in some cases, a tumour marker blood test – an alpha fetoprotein (AFP) – every six months. Since liver inflammation, cirrhosis and non-related liver diseases such as pregnancy and testicular cancer can cause an elevated AFP, there is ongoing research to try and find an accurate and simple blood test to identify liver cancer early.

Liver ultrasound is simple and safe as there is no radiation exposure. Preparation for the procedure requires fasting. As with all tests, there are limitations. It relies on the skills of the sonographer, the patient’s body build/physique and fasting state. Patients are asked to fast because the bowel can get in the way and overlying gas can limit the views of the liver. In very large patients with fatty liver, the fat in the liver can make visualization difficult so that small liver lesions may not be found. Other liver conditions such as liver cirrhosis and the presence of many cysts can also interfere with getting good visualisation.

Liver cancer is more dangerous without symptoms

In a liver ultrasound, doctors are looking to find new, very small liver spots – often less than 1 cm across. Screening with an ultrasound is usually just a lead-in to other tests that will clarify the nature of any new liver spot. Not all new lesions are cancer, but all new liver lesions in people with underlying risk factor for liver cancer need further close scrutiny.

Next: In Part 5, to be published next week, Dr Lee will write more about liver cancer.

Published 4 February, 2021

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What you need to know about hep B | part 3

What you need to know about hep B | part 3

This article – part 3 of 8 – was written by Dr Alice Lee , Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, Concord Repatriation General Hospital.

Hepatitis B treatment under other circumstances

There are special groups of patients for whom treatment is needed outside of the standard setting. This includes patients who need to undergo significant immune suppressive therapy; women who are pregnant and at risk of transmitting the virus to their unborn baby; and patients with co-infections such as HIV, hepatitis C or other significant chronic health conditions that place them at increased risk of complications. Family history of complications of liver disease such as liver cirrhosis and cancer are also considered as risk factors.

Our immune system causes liver scarring

The hepatitis B virus itself does not cause direct damage to the liver. Such damage is due to our immune systems response to the virus which causes the liver to become inflamed. Over time, this inflammation can lead to scarring. However, in certain clinical situations, when a person’s immune system is altered by medical treatment, hepatitis B can become “reactivated”. For instance, someone who is having cancer chemotherapy will have medicines to suppress their immune system. When the treatment is finished, their immune system becomes active again and this activity can lead to a flare of hepatitis. This is referred to as immune reactivation. Reactivation can be mild, and seen on routine bloods; but, in rare cases, this can be so severe that it can lead to liver failure. Having prophylaxis with antiviral therapy for hepatitis B can save the patient’s life.

There are non-cancer medicines that are also used to suppress the immune system for a variety of immune related disorders. These can also cause immune reactivation. Hepatitis B treatment is therefore given whilst on immunosuppressive therapy, and after stopping, for about six months. The doctor will test for hepatitis B and will advise what may be needed.

Hep B test for all pregnant women

Pregnant women are the other group of hepatitis B affected people where hep B treatment may be considered as a preventative measure. All pregnant women are screened for hepatitis B. In some cases, it may be the first time they find out they are hepatitis B positive. It is important that you receive lots of counselling about this condition and be assessed to determine whether you should have treatment or not. If you do not need treatment, a special blood test to measure the amount of virus in your blood will be done during pregnancy. This is to see whether there is an increased risk of transmitting the virus to the baby at birth.

Hep B vaccine for all newborn babies

In Australia, all babies (irrespective of their mother’s hepatitis B status) are given a hepatitis B vaccine at birth. For babies born to hep B positive mothers, an additional injection of an immune globulin is also given. Despite this, there is still a risk of the baby acquiring hepatitis B if there is a lot of the virus in the mother’s blood at birth. Hence, viral load during her pregnancy helps to determine whether additional medicines can be given to reduce this further. Tenofovir is the usual drug offered and is given around week 28 of pregnancy and stopped at some time after delivery. An obstetrician will work closely with the liver specialist in making sure the mother and her unborn baby are protected.

In addition to having treatment with regular monitoring, a mum to be needs to ensure that she takes good care of her health. General wellbeing including regular exercise, a well-balanced diet with high fibre, plenty of vegetables and protein is important. Avoiding excessive weight gain will also ensure other health benefits.

Next: In Part 4, to be published next week, Dr Lee will write about liver cancer.

Published 28 January, 2021

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