Treatment for hepatitis B and C fell in 2020 due to COVID-19, global survey finds

Keith Alcorn
Published:
16 November 2021
Pexels

Viral hepatitis tests and treatment declined significantly during 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of 31 liver centres on five continents has shown. The decline in testing and treatment initiation delays progress towards hepatitis C elimination, said Professor Maria Buti, of the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital, Barcelona. She presented the survey findings at The Liver Meeting on Saturday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to major adjustments in medical services, including online consultations, cancellation of surgery and minimal face-to-face non-urgent medical care in many settings. But the pandemic has had varying effects on services. In the HIV field, for example, treatment services in Europe have been less affected than testing.

The impact on viral hepatitis testing and treatment is unclear. In the United States, the number of people treated for hepatitis C in 2020 fell by a quarter compared to 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week.

To evaluate the impact of the pandemic on viral hepatitis care, European liver experts designed an internet survey, sent to members of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), international hepatitis experts and liver units in Europe. The survey asked about total numbers of patients in care, numbers of patient consultations and new referrals, numbers tested for chronic hepatitis B and C, confirmatory DNA and RNA testing, the number of patient consultations and the numbers initiated on treatment for hepatitis B and C in 2019 (pre-COVID-19) and 2020 (since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Thirty-seven liver centres responded (20 in Europe and 17 in other regions), of which 31 provided full data.

Hepatitis B outpatient assessments fell by 30% in 2020 compared to 2019 while hepatitis C outpatient assessments by 45%, the survey found. New hepatitis B referrals (a surrogate for new diagnoses) fell by 39, while new hepatitis C referrals fell by 49% (all changes p<0.001).

Thirty-four centres provided information on hepatitis B testing, reporting a 39% reduction in HBsAg tests and a 24% reduction in HBV DNA tests between 2019 and 2020 (p=0.006 and p<0.001 respectively). Seventeen centres reported overall reductions in testing activity.

Hepatitis C confirmatory testing was less affected, falling by 4% overall, although 20 out of 31 centres reporting on this measure saw reductions in testing, half by at least 50%.

Hepatitis B treatment initiation fell by 35% (p<0.001). Nineteen centres saw reductions in activity.

Hepatitis C treatment initiation also fell, by 49% (p<0.001), and 26 of the 34 centres reporting on this measure experienced reductions in treatment initiation.

The variation between centres in testing and treatment initiation is partly explained by the differences in severity of COVID-19 between countries, said Maria Buti, but also by heterogenous health systems. When the survey was confined to centres in the WHO Europe region (21 clinics) and to the reporting of patient referrals or new consultations, and treatment initiation, the impact on hepatitis care was more pronounced.

The number of consultations and new patient referrals for hepatitis B fell by 34% and 39% respectively (p=0.002 and p<0.001 respectively) in the WHO Europe region centres. Eighteen of the 21 centres reported reductions in activity and 44% reported that new referrals had fallen by at least half.

Twenty clinics reported on hepatitis C activity. Outpatient consultations fell by 42% and new referrals by 49% and 18 out of 20 centres reported reductions in new referrals.

Although 14 out of 18 centres reporting on hepatitis B treatment initiation saw reductions in treatment initiation, the overall reduction was non-significant (-17%, p=0.055) and the absolute number starting treatment fell by less than 200.

But in the case of hepatitis C, the number of patients starting treatment almost halved (-48%, p<0.001), falling by 1159 patients across the 20 centres reporting on treatment initiation. Nineteen out of 20 centres reported reductions and 58% reported that treatment initiation fell by at least half in 2020 at their centre.

Further research will be needed to investigate longer-term trends in viral hepatitis referral, testing and treatment, said Professor Buti.

Reference

Guex M et al (presenter Maria Buti). COVID-19 impact on global hepatitis elimination. Preliminary results in 31 centres worldwide. The Liver Meeting, abstract 41, 2021. (Hepatology, 74 (suppl 1): 29A, 2021)