KARACHI: An ‘invisible’ epidemic of deadly hepatitis C virus affecting 10 million people prevails in Pakistan, which has the highest burden of the disease in the world, claiming a life every 20 minutes. The crisis is well reflective of persistent government failure to enforce disease prevention and treatment strategies including infection control measures at healthcare settings and ensure provision of safe blood.

These concerns were raised by experts at a presser held at a local hotel on Thursday in connection with the 16th annual conference of Pakistan Society for the Study of Liver Diseases (PSSLD).

The three-day conference titled ‘Emerging Trends in Hepatology: Challenges and Opportunities’ will open tomorrow.

The experts described the disease as a silent killer given the fact that the majority of the people with the infection didn’t not exhibit any symptoms for years till the disease progressed.

Almost 10m people are affected by the diseases, moot told

The unprecedented floods, they said, had exacerbated the spread of hepatitis E, exposing over 75,000 expecting mothers to the risk of this potentially fatal virus.

Sharing some statistics on hepatitis C, leading epidemiologist Dr Homie Razavi from the Centre for Disease Analysis (CDA) in the United States, said currently there were nearly 10m million people in Pakistan living with hepatitis C – more than China and India – who needed to be diagnosed and treated.

“This population is at a higher risk of developing liver cancer and cirrhosis (long-term liver damage) in their lifetime than those who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day,” Dr Razavi, who runs the Polaris Observatory, the world’s largest database on viral hepatitis, told the audience.

Pakistan, he pointed out, had been seeing a consistent rise in hepatitis C incidence and since 2015 nearly half a million new infections were being reported every year. In 2020 alone, over 461,000 new cases of hepatitis C were added to the pool, a higher incidence of new cases than any other country.

“The good news, however, is that effective, inexpensive medicine with no side effects is available that brings about complete recovery. But, this great opportunity could only be availed if patients are diagnosed at an early stage for which Pakistan needs to have an effective screening programme across Pakistan,” Dr Razavi explained.

Dr Amna Subhan from Aga Khan University (AKU) said hepatitis B and C were both blood-borne diseases and spread through unsafe injections, lack of infection control measures in healthcare settings and tattoo parlours, among other causes.

Prof Zaigham Abbas from Ziauddin University Hospital said over 15m people suffered from hepatitis B and C in Pakistan, making hepatitis the biggest killer among communicable diseases.

He urged the federal and provincial governments to scale up their programmes to eliminate hepatitis C, to meet the WHO elimination goals, which would save over 150,000 lives and prevent over 100,000 new cases of liver cancer between now and 2030.

Prof Saeed Hamid from AKU said the prevalence of hepatitis C had increased from 6 per cent to 9pc in Punjab and 5pc to 6pc in Sindh, while calling for innovative strategies to address the challenge.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022

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