China needs to take urgent action to save lives of 10 million hepatitis patients: WHO
World Health Organisation implores Beijing to improve patients’ access to treatment
About 10 million people living with chronic hepatitis in China will die “mostly avoidable deaths” by 2030 unless Beijing takes “urgent action” to improve access to treatment, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.
The international agency’s warning comes a day ahead of World Hepatitis Day.
According to the WHO, China has about 90 million chronic hepatitis B (HBV) sufferers. Of those, 28 million require treatment while seven million need urgent treatment because of advanced liver disease and the heightened risk of developing cancer. Another 10 million live with chronic hepatitis C (HCV), with 2.5 million in urgent need of treatment.
Decades of large-scale immunisation – the first shot within 24 hours after birth and two more doses in infancy – has reduced the occurrence of chronic HBV in young children by 97 per cent.
Access to treatment had become a crucial public health priority, the WHO said. Fewer than 2 per cent of HBV and HCV patients in need of treatment actually receive the care they require, mostly because the cost is well above China’s disposable income level.
The organisation called for public health insurance to fully cover hepatitis B treatment to make it affordable for patients.
“Only when a person can actually get these medicines – at an affordable price – will lives be saved,” Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, the WHO’s representative in China, said.
Cai Haodong, a professor of infectious diseases at Beijing’s Ditan Hospital, said the price of hepatitis B drug Viread had dropped from 1,500 yuan (HK$1,740) to less than 500 yuan after negotiations with manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.
The drug is yet to be listed in the public health insurance’s drug catalogue.
Cai said drugs that were more effective against HCV had not been approved by China’s regulator, leaving patients a choice of less-effective domestic drugs or buying generic ones from India on the black market. “I fear for my patients and wish for speedy approval of HCV drugs,” Cai said. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
An estimated 400,000 people die each year in China from hepatitis-related complications. About 10 million people could die from chronic hepatitis-related cirrhosis and liver cancer between 2015 and 2030, mostly from hepatitis B.