Friday, January 1, 2010

Four to five million Pakistanis are carriers of hepatitis B

An estimated 300 to 350 million people worldwide are carriers of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) – a major hepatitis virus. In Pakistan, four to five million people are suspected HBV carriers. The virus can cause a number of liver diseases, including chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. To raise public awareness, Aga Khan University (AKU), in collaboration with the Pakistan Society for the Study of Liver Diseases (PSSLD) organised a programme on hepatitis viruses.

Close to two million people worldwide die each year from HBV and according to the World Health Organization, the virus is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV/AIDS. HBV is endemic in parts of Asia, with more children being affected as the virus can be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth. Dr Khalid Mumtaz, Consultant Gastroenterologist, Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH), said that the high number of HBV carriers in Pakistan places an enormous burden on patients, their families as well as on the government and its resources. Large amounts of money is spent on treatment but given the limited options available, prevention is better than cure. The best way to prevent hepatitis B is through vaccination, and Dr Mumtaz recommended that infants be vaccinated immediately after birth. Providing an update on vaccinations, Dr Wasim Jafri, Consultant Gastroenterologist, AKUH and President, PSSLD, advised that three doses of the HBV vaccine are essential for full protection. Contrary to earlier advice, if a dose is missed the vaccination schedule can be continued without repeating the initial doses.

Another hepatitis virus, hepatitis C, is usually spread through blood from an infected person. Dr Muhammad Salih, Consultant Gastroenterologist, AKUH, said that there is a rising incidence of hepatitis C in Pakistan due to poor awareness, lack of basic health care and below-par blood screening facilities. The multiple use of disposable needles and syringes, substandard transfusion services and poor dental and surgical health care are all issues that need to be highlighted though wider public awareness.

If detected in time, there is an 80 to 90 per cent of curing hepatitis, according to Dr Saeed Hamid, Consultant Gastroenterologist, AKUH and Vice President, PSSLD. He pointed out however, that treatment is expensive. He also said that the disease cannot be cured if liver cirrhosis occurs, so timely diagnosis is essential.

The best measures against hepatitis E, yet another hepatitis virus, are to avoid dirty tap water and to follow good hygiene and sanitation practices, said Dr Rustam Khan, Consultant Gastroenterologist, AKUH. Hepatitis E is primarily spread through water contaminated by sewage. Dr Hasnain Shah, Consultant Gastroenterologist, AKUH said that this infection can be severe and may prove fatal in pregnant women, and advised them to be careful about drinking clean water and eating only well-cooked food during pregnancy.