AsianScientist (Jul. 28, 2021) – As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm—and the same holds true when it comes to detecting disease. For viral hepatitis, early diagnosis provides the opportunity for interventions to stop the disease in its tracks before it’s too late.
Viral hepatitis inflames the liver and can lead to severe disease or cancer. Even amidst the current pandemic, a person dies every 30 seconds from a hepatitis-related illness annually, resulting in a whopping one million deaths in the Asia Pacific region alone. What’s even more worrying is that nine out of 10 people who are infected by viral hepatitis are completely unaware of their status.
It’s no wonder then that the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated this year’s theme for World Hepatitis Day on 28 July 2021 as “Hepatitis can’t wait.”
From identifying hepatitis infection and early signs of liver cancer in unknowing individuals, it’s clear that experts across Asia Pacific and the world likewise cannot wait to stamp out viral hepatitis and related diseases once and for all.
The roadblocks to progress
When it comes to disease, knowing is half the battle, yet in the case of viral hepatitis, access to life-saving information and diagnostics remain elusive. Dr. Zaigham Abbas, Head of Gastroenterology at Pakistan’s Ziauddin University, is all too aware of this struggle.
After all, the country has one of the world’s highest rates of hepatitis C virus infection (HCV)—reporting around 24,000 HCV-related deaths each year—with improper safety protocols and inadequate screening as major contributing factors.
For instance, proper sterilization facilities are often unavailable in remote areas or small towns. Unsafe practices like reusing syringes and blades persist, allowing the disease to spread undetected throughout the population.
In Pakistan, those diagnosed with HCV also tend to be shunned by the community and even their own family, with the stigma discouraging people from getting tested. These issues are exacerbated in provincial areas, which typically lack easy access to diagnostic and treatment facilities.
HCV screening and treatment services are currently provided by the country’s private and public healthcare providers. To stem the tide of disease locally, free treatment is even provided to diagnosed individuals on a provincial level.
Today, Pakistan’s government is actively working on a national screening program meant to identify patients at the community level—taking the country one step closer to eventual HCV eradication.
Bolstering the fight against hepatitis
Aside from Pakistan, other countries are also finding innovative ways to better fight viral hepatitis and its related diseases. Consider the case of Egypt: in 2018, the country launched the world’s largest screening campaign for HCV so far, with the goal of screening everyone aged 18 and above within a year and providing treatment to all infected patients.
About 8000 teams implemented screening in three phases. After an initial screening for HCV antibodies, patients who tested positive were referred to specialized centers to confirm the presence of active infection. Once antiviral treatment had been received, patients were followed up at 12 weeks and monitored for signs of persisting HCV genetic material.
The key to Egypt’s engagement throughout the process? Digital solutions. Patients used their mobile phones to register, with the nearest screening site automatically assigned.
After testing, individuals could easily access results via their phones, instead of enduring a lengthy waiting period at a clinic. To keep everyone up to speed, personalized treatment and appointment reminders were also sent.
Thanks to these efforts, 49.6 million people were screened in seven months, with 2.2 million prospective HCV patients referred for subsequent treatment. Given the success of their program, Egypt is now among the few countries set to eliminate HCV by 2030.
Meanwhile, countries like Japan have issued free hepatitis testing for all citizens between 40 and 70 years of age as part of their routine health check-ups.
Because long-term infection with another subtype called hepatitis B (HBV) can lead to liver cancer, high-risk individuals are also recommended to undergo ultrasounds and blood tests—allowing cancer to be diagnosed at earlier, more treatable stages.
Putting hepatitis in the past
While the specific needs and risk factors may vary from country to country, the importance of early diagnosis remains undeniable across the board. As proven by Egypt, digitalization could make the process more sophisticated, encouraging others to follow suit.
In the future, implants that continuously monitor patients for liver disease biomarkers may also be a possibility, further removing the barriers to diagnosis.
Given the prevalence of viral hepatitis in the Asia Pacific region, these case studies may be used to spur similar initiatives across the region. For more insights on how clinical lab diagnostics can potentially make hepatitis-related diseases a thing of the past, check out Lab Insights, an educational platform hosted by Roche Diagnostics Asia Pacific.
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of Roche Diagnostics Asia Pacific.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Unsplash.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.