Monday, July 29, 2013

Getting hepatitis on the policy agenda in Asia

Viral hepatitis causes 1 million deaths a year in the Asia Pacific region, the equivalent of one death every 30 seconds and more than three times as many as HIV. Of the 350 million people in the world living with hepatitis B, 74% of them live in Asia.

There is a vaccine for hepatitis B that could save millions of lives if the governments make it a priority. What we need is for governments across the region to approach viral hepatitis in the same way that most have HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. This starts with the development of a national action plan.

Despite the sizeable liver cancer wards in many of Asia's major hospitals, a general lack of understanding of liver disease both among the public and health professionals and no systematic screening for those at risk has left the epidemic unchecked.

There should be a campaign on liver disease education for the public and healthcare workers and an expansion of countrywide screening, hepatitis B vaccination and treatment of chronic hepatitis. These measures coupled with long-term surveillance for liver cancer, enhanced infection control to prevent transmission in health care settings and ongoing prevalence data analysis can help bring the epidemic of liver disease under control.

Vaccination for children is quite prevalent in many countries but vaccination for adults is far less widespread. But progress is stunted in parts of Asia where hepatitis is accompanied by discrimination. In many places the stigma attached to hepatitis B is severe. Pre-employment tests for the disease screen out those who test positive. Overseas workers from the Asia face similar discrimination notably in Middle Eastern countries. People with hepatitis are blatantly discriminated against and workplace discrimination is a huge problem that deters people from getting voluntarily tested.


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