Ignorance of hepatitis B widespread
Do you know that one in 12 adults in Hong Kong is a hepatitis B carrier? If you don't, you're not alone. Seventy per cent of respondents to a recent survey didn't know either.
That wasn't all they didn't know. Of about 2,000 people surveyed by the Hong Kong Hep B Free Foundation last month, only a third realised that someone with a chronic case of the liver disease might show no obvious symptoms. And 40 per cent were unsure if they were a carrier.
Simon Chan, 56, said he was one of the ignorant ones - even though his sister was a known carrier - until a blood test after a leg injury showed he had the disease too, as well as cirrhosis, a known complication. 'I had heard of hepatitis B, but I couldn't believe I would have it. I developed no symptoms at all,' said the accountant, who did not have regular medical checks.
Hepatitis B is usually transmitted through contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person. Carriers can suffer from cirrhosis, which kills 70 per cent of sufferers within five years, or liver failure, and are 100 to 200 times more likely than non-carriers to develop liver cancer - the third-biggest cause of deaths from cancer in Hong Kong in 2008.
Chronic hepatitis B remains a public health problem despite the government offering free vaccination to every newborn since 1988; there are an estimated 300,000 cases.
'Hepatitis B is an infectious disease that could be eliminated by safe and effective vaccination and medicine,' said Dr Samuel So Kai-sum, a liver cancer specialist and consultant for the World Health Organisation.
A majority of the city's population was born before 1988, when systematic vaccination began, and many of these people are therefore unaware of the disease, So said. 'This is an example of failing to translate a life-saving medical discovery into effective public health policy to save millions of people. What it takes is political will and advocacy.'
The controller of the Centre for Health Protection, Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, ruled out the possibility of free liver check-ups for the public in the short term, saying it would require huge resources. 'It might put a strain on the public medical sector,' he said. For the time being, people should see a private doctor.
The Hospital Authority will fund 36,000 DNA tests in the 2011-12 financial year. They will help prevent liver diseases caused by the hepatitis B virus flaring up again because patients develop resistance to the drugs used to treat them. 'The DNA test can send an early warning to doctors, as the DNA concentration of hepatitis B virus in patients' blood rises sharply before a relapse,' said Dr Vincent Leung King-sun, a consultant at United Christian Hospital.
The government is joining forces with community organisations to raise awareness of the virus today - World Hepatitis Day.