Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Subramaniam said it is estimated that roughly half a million Malaysians have Hepatitis C. However, most of them are unaware of the infection. Speaking at the 12th Liver Update seminar that was organised by the Malaysian Liver Foundation (MLF), Subramaniam expressed that the majority of them “were not aware that they had contracted Hepatitis C” – due to a lack of knowledge on the disease and the need to undergo health screening.

Cases of cirrhosis and liver cancer on the rise, due to escalating incidence rates of hepatitis

Dr Subramaniam regarded this infection as a major challenge in the medical field. Hepatitis C incidence rates in the country have more than doubled over the years – from 3.71% in 2009 to 8.57% in 2016.

“However, we must also be cognisant of the fact that the figures obtained from the Health Ministry may be an underestimation of the actual situation, as not everyone who seeks treatment or go for executive screening will be offered tests for Hepatitis C,” elaborated Dr Subramaniam.

In addition, despite the fact that all newborns have been receiving free Hepatitis B vaccines since 1989, he said the incidence rates of Hepatitis B have increased from 2.13% in 2009 to 12.6 in 2016. “The Hepatitis B immunisation shot has proven to be somewhat effective, with a 95% coverage rate. Adults may want to get booster doses of Hepatitis B vaccine (recommended in certain circumstances),” he advised.

Dr Subramaniam warned that the increased prevalence of chronic Hepatitis B and C meant that more people would develop cirrhosis and liver cancer. “About 40 to 50% of all cirrhotic patients due to hepatitis C will develop progressive liver damage and ultimately liver failure and death,” he told reporters after launching the four-day event on 20 July.

Government’s at work to reduce cost of treatment

The government is collaborating with international agencies to come up with a new formula to further reduce the cost of Hepatitis C treatment, affirmed Dr Subramaniam.

“Now the cost is RM30,000 to RM40,000 per person for 12 weeks treatment. We hope to bring it down to RM1,000. If we do that, it is a major success. We are in the process and we hope by one or three years’ time, we’ll make that available,” he told reporters.

He added that fatty liver is another liver related illness, which is caused by an individual’s lifestyle. “The disease has shown a drastic increase (in the number of cases) globally as well as in our country due to lifestyle; namely obesity, cholesterol, high lipid content in the blood and office-bound workers who do not require any fitness exposure,” he explained.

Screening needs to be enhanced amongst high-risk groups

At the same event, MLF president Tan Sri Dr Mohd Ismail Merican said Malaysians still lack awareness on the risk of liver related illness. “You would not know you have it (hepatitis). They may not have any symptoms – this is the problem. It is a silent killer. Everyone is at risk. Go for a blood check for early detection of Hepatitis B and C and change your lifestyle to avoid fatty liver disease,” he advised.

Echoing Ismail Merican’s statement, Dr Subramaniam further stressed that initiatives to identify patients at risk of the blood-borne virus needed to be stepped up. “Screening for Hepatitis C at various levels needs to be enhanced and treatment prioritised to patients who are at higher risk of developing advanced liver disease,” he expressed.

He continued, “Screening however, can only be effective if those identified with Hepatitis C are linked to competent healthcare providers. Patients eligible for treatment will have to be offered treatment.” MIMS

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