HBV: Do I treat my immunotolerant patients?

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Immunotolerant patients with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection are characterized by positive HBeAg, high viral replication, persistently normal ALT and no or minimal liver damage. Since the risk of the progression of liver disease and the chance of a sustained response with existing anti-HBV agents are low, current guidelines do not recommend treatment but close monitoring with serial alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and HBV DNA measurements instead. However, not treating all these patients is a concern because advanced histological lesions have been reported in certain cases who are usually older (>30–40 years old), and continued high HBV replication could increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Thus, the optimal management of immunotolerant patients is often individualised according to age, which is associated with histological severity and patient outcome. In particular, immunotolerant patients <30 years old can be monitored for ALT and HBV DNA, while treatment is often recommended in the few patients over 40. A liver biopsy and/or non-invasive assessment of fibrosis may be helpful to determine the therapeutic strategy in patients between 30 and 40 years old. Moreover, there are three specific subgroups of immunotolerant patients who often require treatment with oral anti-HBV agents: patients who will receive immunosuppressive treatment or chemotherapy, women with serum HBV DNA >106–7 IU/ml during the last trimester of pregnancy and certain healthcare professionals with high viraemia levels. More studies are needed to further clarify the natural history for the optimal timing of treatment in this setting.

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