Carriers of deadly virus fail to seek treatment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:05pm


In startling findings revealed recently, more than half of 413 hepatitis B carriers identified through free tests in Hong Kong last year revealed that they knew of their status from previous blood donation drives or medical check-ups, but had not had any medical follow-ups.

Of these carriers, 27 per cent showed active levels of the virus, which makes them prone to cirrhosis, liver cancer and other complications. One in four chronic hepatitis B sufferers who do not receive prompt treatment will eventually die from complications, says Dr Nancy Leung Wai-yee, chairwoman of AsiaHep Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation that aims to raise awareness of the disease.

So, you'd think people would seek medical attention immediately upon knowing their condition. But perhaps it's because hepatitis B does not exhibit obvious symptoms that patients often shrug off the disease. 'By the time they seek medical help, the condition has become severe,' says Leung.

On World Hepatitis Day on July 28, doctors and patients called attention to what they termed a 'hidden epidemic'.

More than 20 per cent of Hongkongers are hepatitis B carriers, according to the free tests conducted by AsiaHep on 1,942 people last year. This is more than double the reported incidence rate of 10 per cent.

The virus is spread through contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person - such as from an infected mother to her baby at or after birth or through unprotected sex with a carrier.

Since the government started inoculating all newborns against the virus in 1988, most people under 24 have the required antibodies. But it is estimated that 500,000 people over 24 are virus carriers. The Centre for Health Protection says 70 people contracted hepatitis B last year.

There are 350 million hepatitis B carriers globally, 75 per cent of them Asians. Hospital Authority figures show that 1,488 people died from liver cancer in 2009, about 85 per cent of whom had hepatitis B.

The annual arrival of more than 10,000 mainlanders - who have no antibodies - has pushed up the rate of sufferers, say Michael Li Kin-kong, consultant physician and chief of the gastroenterology division at Tuen Mun Hospital.

Leung says having medical checks is the best way to prevent the development of serious liver problems. 'Virus carriers need to pay more attention and have regular check-ups,' she says. 'They should have a blood test every six months.'

The government introduced DNA testing at hospitals last year, so virus carriers can check the amount of hepatitis B virus in their blood. Wong Tsz-ching, 31, credits the regular tests with helping him keep his condition in check.

Last week, AsiaHep launched an iPhone app developed by Wong called MyLiver. It records virus readings and sends reminders for check-ups. 'The app helps me control my condition,' he says.