top of page

Hepatitis D

20 July 2023

Key facts

  • Hepatitis D virus (HDV) is a virus that requires hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its replication.

  • Hepatitis D virus (HDV) affects globally nearly 5% of people who have a chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV).

  • HDV infection occurs when people become infected with both hepatitis B and D simultaneously (co-infection) or get hepatitis D after first being infected with hepatitis B (super-infection).

  • Populations that are more likely to have HBV and HDV co-infection include indigenous populations, recipients of haemodialysis and people who inject drugs.

  • Worldwide, the number of HDV infections has decreased since the 1980s, due mainly to a successful global HBV vaccination programme.

  • The combination of HDV and HBV infection is considered the most severe form of chronic viral hepatitis due to more rapid progression towards liver-related death and hepatocellular carcinoma.

  • Hepatitis D infection can be prevented by hepatitis B immunization, but treatment success rates are low.

Overview

 

Hepatitis D is an inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV), which requires HBV for its replication. Hepatitis D infection cannot occur in the absence of hepatitis B virus. HDV-HBV co-infection is considered the most severe form of chronic viral hepatitis due to more rapid progression towards hepatocellular carcinoma and liver-related death.

Vaccination against hepatitis B is the only method to prevent HDV infection.

Geographical distribution

In a study published in the Journal of Hepatology in 2020 (1), conducted in collaboration with WHO, it was estimated that hepatitis D virus (HDV) affects nearly 5% of people globally who have a chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) and that HDV co-infection could explain about 1 in 5 cases of liver disease and liver cancer in people with HBV infection. The study has identified several geographical hotspots of high prevalence of HDV infection including Mongolia, the Republic of Moldova, and countries in western and central Africa.

Transmission

The routes of HDV transmission, like HBV, occur through broken skin (via injection, tattooing etc.) or through contact with infected blood or blood products. Transmission from mother to child is possible but rare. Vaccination against HBV prevents HDV coinfection and hence expansion of childhood HBV immunization programmes has resulted in a decline in hepatitis D incidence worldwide.

Chronic HBV carriers are at risk of infection with HDV. People who are not immune to HBV (either by natural disease or immunization with the hepatitis B vaccine) are at risk of infection with HBV, which puts them at risk of HDV infection.

Those who are more likely to have HBV and HDV co-infection include indigenous people, people who inject drugs and people with hepatitis C virus or HIV infection. The risk of co-infection also appears to be potentially higher in recipients of haemodialysis, men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers. 

Symptoms

 

In acute hepatitis, simultaneous infection with HBV and HDV can lead to a mild-to-severe hepatitis with signs and symptoms of indistinguishable from those of other types of acute viral hepatitis infections. These features typically appear 3–7 weeks after initial infection and include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, pale-coloured stools, jaundice (yellow eyes) and even fulminant hepatitis. However, recovery is usually complete, development of fulminant hepatitis is infrequent, and chronic hepatitis D is rare (less than 5% of acute hepatitis).

In a superinfection, HDV can infect a person already chronically infected with HBV. The superinfection of HDV on chronic hepatitis B accelerates progression to a more severe disease in all ages and in 70‒90% of persons. HDV superinfection accelerates progression to cirrhosis almost a decade earlier than HBV mono-infected persons. Patients with HDV induced cirrhosis are at an increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC); however, the mechanism in which HDV causes more severe hepatitis and a faster progression of fibrosis than HBV alone remains unclear.

Diagnosis

HDV infection is diagnosed by high levels of anti-HDV immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin M (IgM), and confirmed by detection of HDV RNA in serum.

However, HDV diagnostics are not widely available and there is no standardization for HDV RNA assays, which are used for monitoring response to antiviral therapy.

Treatment

Pegylated interferon alpha is the generally recommended treatment for hepatitis D virus infection. Treatment should last for at least 48 weeks irrespective of the patient’s response. The virus tends to give a low rate of response to the treatment; however, the treatment is associated with a lower likelihood of disease progression.

This treatment is associated with significant side effects and should not be given to patients with decompensated cirrhosis, active psychiatric conditions and autoimmune diseases. Bulevirtide is one of the new promising treatments for hepatitis D. 

More efforts are needed to reduce the global burden of chronic hepatitis B and develop medicines that are safe and effective against hepatitis D and are affordable enough to be deployed on a large scale to those who are most in need.

Prevention

While WHO does not have specific recommendations on hepatitis D, prevention of HBV transmission through hepatitis B immunization, including a timely birth dose, additional antiviral prophylaxis for eligible pregnant women, blood safety, safe injection practices in health care settings and harm reduction services with clean needles and syringes are effective in preventing HDV transmission. Hepatitis B immunization does not provide protection against HDV for those already infected with HBV.

  • Fact sheets
    Hepatitis A Hepatitis B Hepatitis C Hepatitis D Hepatitis E Hepatitis B and C in Sierra Leone
  • Q & A
    What is hepatitis? Severe acute hepatitis of unknown cause in children How can I protect myself from hepatitis B?
  • HIV Prevention
    Using HIV Medication to Reduce Risk HIV treatment as prevention Pre-exposure prophylaxis Post-exposure prophylaxis Reducing Risk from Alcohol & Drug Use Alcohol and HIV risk Substance use and HIV risk
  • Q & A
    Details coming soon
bottom of page