China urged to step up protection against hepatitis
World experts have urged the Chinese government to step up protection against viral hepatitis, described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a largely neglected silent killer that claims 1.4 million lives across the world every year.
The appeal by the WHO and the Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific, comes ahead of 7th World Hepatitis Day today, which was chosen in honour of the birthday of Professor Baruch Samuel Blumberg, who discovered the hepatitis B virus.
"Awareness is still a major problem that hinders the protection against viral hepatitis," coalition founding member and University of Hong Kong professor Lai Ching-lung said.
Hepatitis, which progresses to cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated, can be caused by five viral hepatotropic viruses.
More than 78 per cent of patients who have liver cancer have been infected by hepatitis B or C virus (also called HBV or HCV), which can lead to acute and chronic infections.
Last year the WHO said that China had the highest costs of treating liver diseases in the world.
Mainland health officials put official figures of the hepatitis population at 7.9 per cent - meaning more than 100 million people are living with the chronic disease, with about 80 per cent of them being carriers of HBV.
The mainland began offering free HBV vaccine for children in 2001, but the China Foundation for Hepatitis Prevention and Control said about one in 100 infants below the age of five years were still carriers of the disease.
In Hong Kong, the significance of liver cancer has been overshadowed by colorectum cancer, which became the second highest death-causing cancer in the city in 2011, after lung cancer.
But the overall prevalence of chronic HBV infection was moderate to high, according to the Centre for Health Protection. About 1,400 Hongkongers are killed by liver cancer each year, most of them born before the free HBV vaccine was offered to all infants in 1988.
Lai believes the actual number of Chinese carriers is much higher, as many people who live in remote regions may not have access to the vaccination programme and those who are infected may not be diagnosed.
He said that although the Chinese government had put in a lot of effort in treatment and prevention, many people still lacked awareness of the disease.
"Hepatitis is a very silent disease with no symptoms at all, as the liver does not have any nerves and the infector would not feel any pain. By the time any effect is being felt, the condition may have developed into a very late stage," Lai said.
Many patients still had misconceptions about liver disease, Lai said. Some people think they have to "inherit" hepatitis from their parents. The virus is spread by contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person.
Lai said hepatitis was no longer life-threatening if properly diagnosed and treated. But he said a lot of people were not getting treatment simply because they had not taken tests to find out if they were infected.
The coalition, formed by hepatitis experts to advocate public policy on the health issue, pointed out that only half of countries in the region had established an action plan to prevent and control the spread of the disease.
WHO urged policymakers to carry out actions to strengthen prevention, screening and control of disease.
Last April the WHO issued new recommendations for governments to better treat hepatitis C. Since then, 194 governments have adopted a resolution to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of viral hepatitis.