Asian alarm at deadly hepatitis spread

More than five million people in South and Southeast Asia will die from viral hepatitis over the next decade as experts warn of a rampant epidemic that has already taken more lives than malaria, dengue and HIV/AIDS combined in the past 10 years.

The crisis is compounded by lack of awareness about the disease and the increasing resistance of drugs, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says. More than 130 million people from 11 Asian countries carry hepatitis B and C, out of a total of 520 million globally.

A statement released by WHO today said that “[s]eemingly healthy people may be infected, and can continue to spread the infection”, while chronic hepatitis B and C are “among the leading causes of preventable deaths” in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

“These viruses are 30 times more prevalent than HIV in [these countries]. However, due to the asymptomatic nature of these infections, about 60 percent of infected individuals remain unaware that they are infected, until they show symptoms of cirrhosis or a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma; this may take over 20 years.”

It added that more than half of the total deaths attributed to hepatitis E, which can be contracted by eating or drinking contaminated for or water, occur in this region.

The majority of these 11 countries suffer from regular and acute health crises, with rates of HIV/AIDS in Thailand among the highest in the world, and Burma and North Korea subjected to some of the world’s lowest government healthcare spending.

A revamped government budget announced in Burma earlier this year allocated less than three percent of total annual spending to healthcare and education combined. In contrast, regional spending averages at 10 percent. Hospitals are woefully undernourished, and infectious diseases borne in Burma are carried to neighbouring countries by the thousands of migrants that cross the border each year.

Up to date information on hepatitis however is scarce. Vismita Gupta-Smith, from the WHO’s regional office in India, said that the lack of public awareness meant the organisation was struggling to find accurate data for each country in the region.

“We’re asking national governments to give us all their data and advocating that monitoring [of the spread of hepatitis] should be strengthened,” she said. “We want disease to be on the radar for the general public so that people can go and test themselves.”

To boost awareness the WHO has set 28 July as the first World Hepatitis Day, Gupta-Smith said.

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