Farmers face daunting bills for hepatitis C

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


The average cost of inpatient treatment for hepatitis C on the mainland is more than the average annual income of farmers, a national survey has found.

Dr Duan Zhongping , director of hepatology at the Wu Jieping Medical Foundation and vice-president of Beijing Youan Hospital, said the first national survey on the cost of treatment, conducted from March to May, found that inpatient bills averaged 8,212 yuan (HK10,070).

The National Bureau of Statistics says the average income of a mainland farmer last year was 6,977 yuan, while that of an urban resident was 23,979 yuan.

'I encounter a lot of farmers who have gone into bankruptcy because of this disease,' Duan said.

Inpatient treatment usually lasts for a couple of weeks or a bit longer, with 60 per cent of the cost going on drugs and the rest on nursing, testing and other fees.

Duan said a patient then had to take drugs orally and receive interferon injections for about a year, costing another 80,000 yuan or so.

Urban patients will see 70 per cent of their bills met by medical insurance, while rural patients have half of their bills paid by the new Rural Co-operative Medical Insurance System.

Duan said: 'Peasants frequently have to quit the therapy at the beginning when they're informed of the cost of treatment, or pull out in the middle of treatment due to a lack of money.'

He said the survey covered 1,116 patients in 29 hospitals, but only a small proportion were from rural areas.

Hepatitis C affects an estimated 10 million to 13 million people on the mainland.

Dr Zhuang Hui , a top hepatitis specialist at Peking University's school of basic medical sciences, said the number of hepatitis C infections on the mainland had previously been estimated at more than 30 million, based on a 1992 survey.

However, most experts had lowered that number to about 13 million after a more accurate epidemiological study in 2006.

About six million of those with the virus contracted it through intravenous drug injections, unprotected sex or selling blood in the 1990s.

Despite publicity campaigns including events that marked the World Hepatitis Day yesterday, public awareness remained poor. Dr Zhao Zhixin , from the Third Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said that based on clinical experience, she and many other doctors believed there were far more than 13 million hepatitis C carriers on the mainland.

She said the symptoms of hepatitis C were not as obvious as those of hepatitis B, and many people would think they had just caught a cold.

Also, doctors in grass-roots clinics were not aware of the problem and would not recommend tests for the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

Zhuang said that unlike hepatitis B, which affects about 90 million people on the mainland and has been under the spotlight for decades, hepatitis C is a mystery to many mainlanders.

'Years ago we carried out an investigation among people on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and found that 60 per cent of people didn't know what HCV [the hepatitis C virus] was and they did not know that the disease could be cured. More than 95 per cent of the people surveyed said they had not been tested for HCV,' Zhuang said, adding that less than 2 per cent of people with the virus had received treatment.

Hepatitis C buses organised by the health ministry have been travelling across the nation since last year to boost awareness of the disease and provide free five-minute blood tests.

Duan said the survey would be submitted to the health and social insurance authorities in the hope they would adjust medical insurance to help rural patients. He said the results would be shared with doctors and drug makers , who might be able to produce more affordable drugs.


This many villagers in Guangdong were infected with hepatitis C in February reportedly due to the unsanitary sharing of syringes in clinics