Over twelve million hepatitis sufferers exist in Pakistan. Highest figures have been reported from Sindh and Baluchistan, where almost every fourth person is infected. Sadly, a majority of them are unaware that they are carriers of the deadly virus. “Chronic hepatitis B and C cause more deaths worldwide than tuberculosis or even HIV/AIDS,” stated Dr Shahab Abid, Professor and Head of Gastroenterology, Aga Khan University, at a public awareness session held to mark World Hepatitis Day at the University Hospital.
Viral hepatitis - known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E - affects millions of people worldwide, causing acute and chronic liver disease.
“Revolutionary changes are taking place for the treatment of hepatitis C. It can now be cured and even totally eliminated from the world map,” said Dr Saeed Hamid, Professor and Chair, Department of Medicine, AKU. Lately, the biggest successes have been the development of new and highly potent medications for treatment of hepatitis C. “The introduction of the new direct acting antiviral agents in the form of pills are more effective, safer and better-tolerated than existing therapies,” added Dr Hamid.
These medications are extremely expensive. Pakistan is very likely to receive them at nominal costs compared to USA and Europe because manufacturers and international agencies realize the importance of providing the drug in resource poor countries with the highest disease burden. “The onus is now on the regulatory authorities in Pakistan to bring these drugs, already approved by the US FDA, to the market as soon as possible for the benefit of the public”, added Dr Hamid.
Reuse of unsterile needles and syringes, dental equipment, razors for shaving and unsafe blood transfusions are the major reasons for transmission of hepatitis in Pakistan. Strict measures are extremely important to stop the transmission of hepatitis B and C.
If left untreated, hepatitis B and C cause progressive liver disease leading ultimately to liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver cancer and is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide. “Once the complications of liver disease set in, the only option left for a cure is liver transplantation which is not widely available in Pakistan,” said Dr Syed Hasnain Ali Shah, Professor, Department of Medicine at AKU.
Meanwhile, hepatitis B cannot be completely eradicated in a patient. However, it can be effectively controlled to prevent the progression of liver disease. Currently a number of treatment options are available in Pakistan for hepatitis B. “However, in our country most patients with hepatitis B are treated by general practitioners who are unaware of the right treatments. Thus it is important to create awareness and understanding of the treatment options for best results,” emphasized Dr S. M. Wasim Jafri, Professor of Medicine, Associate Dean of Continuing Medical Education at AKU.