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Helicobacter and Ulcers

Duodenal ulcer
Helicobacter pylori
Electron micrograph over Helicobacter organisms

How is Helicobacter infection caught and transmitted?

  • The bacteria can only exist in the human stomach (full name - Helicobacter pylori)
  • The bacteria is not found in animals.
  • The bacteria can not survive in the environment.
  • Helicobacter is an infection that is acquired in early childhood (before the age of 5 years).
    • Infection as an adult is rare.
    • The known risk factors for getting the infection in childhood relate to lower socio-economic living conditions (ie. lack of hot running water in the home, overcrowding in the home)
    • Childhood living conditions have dramatically changed in New Zealand over the last 50-60 years consequently “catching” Helicobacter in childhood has become much less common.
    • Helicobacter infection is gradually becoming less common in our community. This is happening "independent" of any effect of antibiotic treatment.
    • Recent studies in NZ show that about 5% of European children become infected with Helicobacter by the age of 20 years.  In contrast, almost half of Pacific Island children (living in NZ) are infected by a similar age.
    • It is still unclear how the bacteria is spread but it appears to require close contact between children.  It is more likely to spread from one child to another in larger families in more crowded living conditions.



Current Treatment Guidelines

  • The recommended treatment is a combination of 3 medications - omeprazole, amoxicillin and clarithromycin.
    • The use of clarithyromycin was the major breakthrough in treatment combinations. Treatment became shorter (7-day duration) and more effective (success rates approx 90%).
    • The main reason for treatment failure is now antibiotic resistance. This is mainly for clarithromycin.  Resistance rates are around 10%.
  • What if the initial treatment fails?
    • Resistance to clarithromycin is very common after failed treatment with Losec HP7 treatment packs. This means that repeating the same treatment has a very low chance of success (perhaps 10% chance of success).
    • Second-line treatment is difficult.
    • De-Nol two tabs twice daily, omeprazole (Losec) 20mg twice daily, tetracycline 500mg three times per day, metronidazole (Flagyl) 400mg three times per day is useful.  This is probably better taken for 10-14 days but this is "tough" treatment   - high chance of nausea, diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting.  Access to tetracycline and De-Nol requires a special authority 
    • High doses of omeprazole with Amoxil is another option. Levofloxacin is a useful drug (in combination with other drugs) but is expensive and not available in NZ.  These options need to be discussed with a gastroenterologist
  • If a second attempt at treatment fails.
    • The merits of further attempts at eradication needs to be carefully considered.
    • Often it is more appropriate to have no further antibiotic treatment.
    • This depends on the underlying problem.  If a peptic ulcer it is worth trying again. If the infection was found on routine testing then perhaps no treatment is appropriate.



Who should have antibiotic treatment?

  • Answer: probably everybody with proven infection. 
  • People with peptic ulcer disease (duodenal and gastric ulcers) definitely need to have treatment. 
    • They also need to have a follow-up test to check that eradication has been successful (see tests).
  • If the issue is indigestion symptoms but a normal gastroscopy apart from evidence of Helicobacter infection;
    • There is some conflicting information. Any benefit of treatment is likely to be modest.
    • Treatment is more likely to be successful (in relieving symptoms) if the problem is upper abdominal discomfort particularly if improved by meals.
    • If the main symptom is heartburn then there is unlikely to be any gain from eradication treatment.
  • If the issue is indigestion symptoms and a positive Helicobacter test but no gastroscopy has been performed to date - the answer is different.
    • Antibiotic treatment for Helicobacter can be given. This approach is called “test and treat”.
    • There has been a lot of work in this area but it is a more "muddling approach" to a problem. There is no definite diagnosis.
    • Some people will respond well but if there are continuing symptoms then a gastroscopy is required.




Helicobacter and acid reflux (heartburn)

  • Helicobacter infection is not the cause of acid reflux - heartburn.
    • Some reports have suggested that acid reflux may actually be worse after treatment for Helicobacter. This issue is still being debated.
    • There is no doubt that reflux is becoming more common in our community.
    • This change has happened at the time when the rate Helicobacter infection is decreasing.
    • In my view these observations are not “cause and effect”.

  • It is worthwhile taking eradication treatment for Helicobacter if long-term treatment of stomach acid with Losec or Somac is required. 
    • This may help maintain a healthy lining on the stomach wall.




Helicobacter and gastric cancer (stomach cancer)

  • Large population studies have consistently shown a 2 to 3-fold increased risk of gastric cancer with Helicobacter infection.
    • There are good reasons to think that the risk is even greater than this – perhaps a 5-6 fold risk.
    • Gastric cancer is more common in Maori and Pacific Island populations partly due to high rates of Helicobacter infection.

  • It is estimated that 50% of the gastric cancer risk is due to Helicobacter infection.
    • Eradication of this infection is likely to reduce the risk of getting gastric cancer.  At this time there is no public policy of preventing gastric cancer by treating large numbers of people. There are several large studies currently looking at this issue.
    • It is very sensible to check for Helicobacter if there is a family history of stomach cancer.





Helicobacter and the risk of ulcers with anti-inflammatory drugs

  • Helicobacter infection increases the risk of having an ulcer in people taking anti-inflammatory drugs about 3-fold.
    • The risk of bleeding into the stomach with anti-inflammatory drugs is also greater in people with Helicobacter infection.
    • Testing then treating for Helicobacter pylori infection prior to starting anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is a proven strategy but has not become a common practice.


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