Intravenous drug users warned on hepatitis C peril
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Half of intravenous drug users in Hong Kong tested by health authorities have hepatitis C, a disease that can lead to liver cirrhosis and cancer.
Hepatitis C is spread by blood-to- blood contact, including contaminated blood transfusions, self-injected drug use and needle-stick injuries in health-care settings.
Tests by the Department of Health on 1,533 drug users between 2003 and 2012 found 49 percent were already infected with chronic hepatitis C.
The Center for Liver Health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, partnering with social work groups to provide tests for past intravenous drug users, also found more than half of the patients tested over the past four to five years were infected.
People who received blood transfusions before 1990 were also considered at risk and should be tested, said center director and specialist in gastroenterology and hepatology Henry Chan Lik-yuen.
He said the disease used to be thought to affect mostly Western nations, but of the 160 million people around the world who have hepatitis C, 52 percent, or 83 million, are in Asia.
Chan said this is related to the lack of awareness about the viral infection in the region, as most research on the disease started in Europe.
"It is essential to educate both patients and doctors about the seriousness of hepatitis C," Chan said.
After patients are found to have hepatitis C, they are referred to public hospitals.
A combination antiviral treatment of ribavirin and interferon is heavily subsidized by the government.
"People are usually reluctant to undergo hepatitis C tests, even though they are referred by their family doctors, because they simply felt nothing," Chan said.
"But it would be too late when the symptoms of hepatitis C show."
Eight out of 10 patients have no symptoms, but hepatitis C causes 25 percent of liver cancer and 33 percent of them will die within one year of diagnosis, he said.
A retired businessman in his 60s, surnamed Ngai, who was first diagnosed with hepatitis C about 20 years ago, speculated he got infected after having his teeth cleaned in Guangzhou in the 1980s.
Ngai tolerated a few years of tough treatments. His blood has been cleared of the hepatitis C virus for 10 years now, but it is not known if the virus will return.
"My muscles were fatigued and I felt like having serious flu after being injected with interferon," Ngai said.
But the injectable drug is not effective for most people with the disease, and unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.