Ex-drug users shun hepatitis treatment

Chinese University study finds that 80 per cent of those diagnosed with disease opt against medication that cuts risk of cirrhosis, cancer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 5:16am

The vast majority of former drug users found to have hepatitis C in a screening programme did not take up an offer of treatment - with many apparently unwilling to take time off work to treat the disease, a Chinese University study has revealed.

Researchers from the university's centre for liver health screened 234 former users between 2009 and 2012, of whom 130, or 56 per cent, were found to have the disease. But just one in five of those accepted treatment.

While the early symptoms of hepatitis C are relatively minor, it can, if left untreated, lead to liver cirrhosis and cancer, said Professor Vincent Wong Wai-sun, deputy director of the university's Centre for Liver Health.

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids and is most commonly spread through the use of shared needles for the injection of drugs. The risk to the general public is low, though it can also spread through dental procedures, tattoos and body piercings

"The problem with hepatitis C is that it's difficult to find affected people to be tested," Wong said as he released the findings yesterday. "That's why we emphasise screening of high-risk people."

Of the 130 people who tested positive, 69 returned for follow-up sessions with doctors. Of those, 38 per cent opted for treatment. By comparison, an earlier study - not confined to drug users - showed that of 300 people who sought follow-up sessions, 56 per cent opted for treatment.

Early symptoms of the disease include tiredness and loss of appetite, Wong said. But of those who are not treated, 20 per cent will develop cirrhosis within 10 years. Of those, between 1 and 4 per cent will develop cancer each year. Among patients who accept treatment, 40 to 50 per cent will be clear of the virus.

Wong said one problem was that many former drug users were from poor backgrounds and focused more on working to support their families than taking the treatment, which involved weekly injections and pills taken daily. Drug users may also be less interested in looking after their health, while some could have psychological problems that made it impossible to take the medicines.

Screening programmes and cooperation with social workers would help in identifying those at risk and ensuring patients continued with their medication, Wong said.

A new, more expensive treatment that did not require injections could be introduced as soon as the end of this year, Wong said. Other medicines being developed around the world could increase the success rate to more than 90 per cent.

Yan Siu-ki, 65, was one of those who received treatment through the university's programme. He was an injection drug user for eight years and quit in the 1990s.

The treatment process was tough, he said. Many people did not accept treatment because they had to go to work and had no time.

He recalled once using an old needle which he fished out of a street bin because the shops were closed. He also shared needles with friends. "I was lucky I didn't contract Aids," he said.

He worked for a Christian organisation after rehabilitation.