Pakistanis Ignoring Disease
Deadlier Than AIDS

By Shahzad Raza
The Daily Times - Pakistan

ISLAMABAD -- Over 15 million people in Pakistan have been infected with the deadly hepatitis B virus and the lack of adequate measures may increase the figure two fold in the next five years, warned National Institute of Health (NIH) and Health Ministry sources. Hepatitis-B is a deadly liver disease with the same mode of transmission as AIDS.
They said NIH had been facing problems in rural areas where parents were not very cooperative when it came to immunising their children. Sources said several national-level surveys indicated the growing prevalence of the disease.
The national programme manager of anti-hepatitis immunisation programme, Dr Rehman Hafiz, admitted there was a lack of cooperation from the public. However, he downplayed the 15 million figure. "I don't have the exact figure right now, but I can claim that the prevalence rate of hepatitis B is not more than 5.8 percent among the population in Pakistan," Dr Hafiz said. "There may be around 8 million patients infected with hepatitis B in the country." He said some private organisations were exaggerating the figure by claiming that the rate is 25 to 30 percent in the country.
Up to 350 million people are carriers of the hepatitis B virus worldwide. Medical experts believe the hepatitis B virus is spreading fast because of ignorance among patients and the lack of proper preventive measures. The hepatitis has five types: A, B, C, D and E. The A and E types are caused through oral infection, contaminated water and unhygienic food while B, C and D are spread through un-sterilised syringes, sexual intercourse, blood transfusion and from a mother to a new born baby.
Dr Hafiz believes the hepatitis problem could continue for the next 10 to 15 years and the sizeable reduction of the hepatitis prevalence rate will only be possible with proper prevention, immunisation and public awareness.
Because of a shortage of funds, the government has planned to target the young population. It began the first phase of the programme last year by vaccinating children under the age of one.
"In the absence of a proper immunisation programme, a generation has grown up without anti-hepatitis vaccinations," he said.
The national programme was launched with the financial backing of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), which is financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "The aim is to immunise every newly born child," Dr Hafiz said.
By the end of 2005, Pakistan will get 81.1 million doses from GAVI, immunising more than 21 million children. Three doses per child are administered at the age of six weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks, along with the three polio vaccinations. Medical exporters say the symptoms of hepatitis B can include abdominal pain, fever, fatigue, the lack of appetite, nausea, jaundice and dark urine. There is no cure for hepatitis B although bed rest and dietary changes can alleviate some of the symptoms. Blood, semen, saliva and vaginal secretions transmit the disease. It is claimed that the hepatitis B virus is 100 times more concentrated in the blood than the HIV virus, making it much easier to spread.
Hepatitis C virus - often called the 'silent epidemic' - can live in the body for decades, often with no symptoms, while attacking the liver. Long-term consequences of hepatitis C can include liver disease, liver cancer, and death. There is also no cure for hepatitis C and no vaccine.



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