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