Curbing hepatitis C

February 03, 2020

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CONSIDERING that Pakistan has the second highest prevalence and disease burden of hepatitis C in the world, the Punjab government’s decision to reach out to WHO for help in curbing the illness is a much-needed move. Punjab accounts for up to 70pc of all hepatitis C cases in Pakistan and the provincial government has sought technical assistance from WHO to check and prevent what it believes could be a “possible explosion” of the disease. According to government estimates, there are between 8m and 11m people with active hepatitis C virus in Pakistan, while about 240,000 new cases are detected every year. The figures show that as many as 20m people may not be aware that they have contracted the virus. The high prevalence of infectious diseases in Pakistan, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, can be largely attributed to unsafe medical practices and the lack of regulation. Last year, a major HIV outbreak occurred in Larkana district due to the extensive reuse of syringes. The use of contaminated needles and unsterilised equipment for invasive medical procedures, the transfusion of unscreened blood or other bodily fluids and the sharing of razors, a normal practice at barber shops, are among the major reasons for the high prevalence of hepatitis C in the country. In fact, according to WHO, Pakistan has the highest rate of therapeutic injections administered to patients, which is said to be the primary cause for the spread of the virus.

Ironically, Pakistan produces relatively cheaper medicines to treat the hepatitis C infection but since a large number of patients remain undiagnosed, few are able to get treated in time. The current government appears to realise the frightening magnitude of the disease burden. Hopefully, with WHO’s help, the prime minister’s programme for the prevention and control of hepatitis will be able to increase access for treatment even as it works to reduce unsafe medical practices. This will also help reduce the burden of other infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2020