Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 12:10
Location: KUALA LUMPUR
HEPATITIS disease, an inflammation of the liver which is most commonly caused by a viral infection, has a long gruesome history in mankind.
Be it hepatitis A, B, C, D or E, all are fatal diseases and have killed more people than malaria, dengue and HIV/AIDS combined together in the past decade. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are about 12–15 million acute cases of hepatitis A worldwide with 3,000 deaths occurring annually.
In addition, there are about two billion people infected with hepatitis B worldwide, with about 360 million living with chronic infection and 600,000 dying because of it.
About 130–170 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C and more than 350,000 people die from the virus-related liver diseases worldwide each year.
Over 50 per cent more infectious than HIV
To make it worse, hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) are more infectious than HIV.
"HBV is up to 100 per cent more infectious than HIV while the HCV is about 50 times more infectious,” said a spoke person from healthcare product manufacturer Roche Malaysia Sdn Bhd.
"Both viruses are stronger than the HIV and could withstand environmental exposure up to seven hours. HIV is weaker and would cease to exist within a short time of exposure," she said.
Nevertheless, similar to HIV, both viruses are easily transmitted through blood.
"They could also be transmitted through injection of recreational drugs, tattooing, acupuncture, unprotected sex, body piercing, kidney dialysis and transmission from mother to child during birth," she said.
It is worrisome that the number of patients of both diseases are higher as compared to the other types of hepatitis diseases in the country, said Professor Dr Rosmawati Mohamed, a Consultant Hepatologist (Liver Specialist) at the University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), here.
Medication and treatment
She pointed out that the lifelong disease is somehow unnoticeable in some of the patients, because most of them never really experience major problems, until they are older.
"There are those who get the disease as early as five years old, but it only comes to their notice after 20 years," she said.
But they can thank their lucky stars now. The disease, which was considered incurable till sometime back, is now curable, she said, adding that in the past nine years, a curable drug or medication has been found and can cure hepatitis C patients.
"There was a study conducted on about seven thousand hepatitis C patients, before this, who were treated with the drug over a six-year period.”
"After the treatment, the virus could no longer be detected in them, and it stays undetectable even after five years" she said.
"A new drug has also been discovered a month ago for hepatitis C patients that could boost the rate of their recuperation," she said.
It is an outstanding discovery for hepatitis C patients, even though curable drugs for other types of hepatitis are still not discovered.
Nevertheless, all types of hepatitis could be controlled through regular treatments which are available in all of the hospitals nationwide.
However, she said early screening is needed and a consultation with doctors is required beforehand to ensure that the disease would not go under the radar and patients receive ongoing treatment.
Thus, she advised the public to go for early screening if they are experiencing any of the diseases' symptoms.
“Not to worry, the treatment is available nationwide in all general hospitals and there are adequate specialist doctors to cater to the needs of patients," ensured
Dr Rosmawati later pointed out that in general, there are four common symptoms of the hepatitis diseases. Among others, she said the four would be jaundice, loss of appetite, fatigue and muscle aches.
"Jaundice would be a classic symptom of hepatitis, whereby it happens due to the accumulation of a chemical called bilirubin in the body's tissues. The liver usually processes this chemical as a waste product, but when the liver is damaged it's unable to do its normal job and the chemical accumulates in the blood and starts to leak out into the body tissue.
"When enough of this chemical accumulates it's possible to see yellow tinge in the skin, urine and especially, around the whites of the eyes," she said.
Other than that, Dr Rosmawati, also the Chairperson of the Malaysian Campaign on World Hepatitis Day 2012, said patients would also experience loss of appetite, where sometimes it lasts for a very short time before being replaced by nausea and vomiting.
The patient would also feel debilitating effects of tiredness due to liver damages and also muscle and joint aches which could last from days to weeks, she said.
The symptoms might be minor, but she added that 25 per cent of adults who are chronically infected with HBV from childhood will develop liver cancer and for those with HCV, up to 70 per cent of chronically-infected persons will develop liver disease, 20 per cent develop cirrhosis and up to five per cent die from it.
Lack of awareness
The lack of awareness among the people, which is not at a conforming level today, puts the disease at higher risk of being registered as an epidemic.
According to the Health Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, in five years before last year, the prevalence of hepatitis disease in the country, particularly type B and C, is estimated to be around three to six per 100,000 people.
A total of 640 hepatitis B and 724 hepatitis C patients were recorded in 2010, whilst the number almost doubled last year with 1,250 for hepatitis B and 1,047 for hepatitis C.
Liow said the number had only increased almost two-fold due to the free-screening programmes held by the ministry in 2010, and the number is expected to increase further if the health screening is taken up by more people with the disease's symptoms.
Liow also pointed out that the disease has managed to stay out of the ministry's radar for far too long and has been neglected, even though the notification of it is mandatory under the 'Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease Act 1988.
World Hepatitis Day Malaysia 2012
Seeing the lack of awareness about these diseases among the public, especially of hepatitis B and C, Dr Rosmawati and her colleagues started an awareness campaign on their own in 2010, alongside World Hepatitis Day which was assigned by WHO every July 28.
"The main objective of the campaign was to remedy the situation," she said. Other than enhancing hepatitis awareness, the campaign with the theme of 'It's closer than you think' was also focusing on early diagnosis, prevention and treatment of hepatitis C.
"For this year, a three-day campaign was held at One Utama Shopping Complex together with 20 hospitals nationwide participating in the campaign, which provide free hepatitis screenings," she said.
But for those who missed it, Dr Rosmawati said the UMMC is still offering free hepatitis screening all year, for those who are at high-risk.