Today is World Hepatitis Day: Erasing the stigma of a silent killer

Prevention, early detection are keys to beating Hepatitis

While many people are aware that hepatitis is an infectious liver disease, there are still those who do not know just how deceptive and dangerous this illness is, and that it can be acquired in different ways. And with 1.1 million to 1.9 million people with chronic Hepatitis expected to die prematurely of cirrhosis or liver cancer,[1] prevention and early detection are more crucial than ever.

“One of the most devastating aspects of Hepatitis is that it is a silent killer. Infected people may carry the virus unknowingly for years without symptoms until it causes serious—and even irreversible and fatal—liver damage. Thus, prevention and early detection are our best weapons against the disease,” said Dr. Diana Payawal, President of the Hepatology Society of the Philippines (HSP).

Even ordinary people can get infected

Dr. Jose Sollano, Jr., past president of HSP and Asia Pacific Association on the Study of the Liver (APASL), stressed that while Hepatitis screening and treatments are increasingly accessible, the stigma associated with the disease causes those who are or may be infected to avoid seeking help.

“Some people have the misconception that hepatitis afflicts only drug users or people who are promiscuous, which is absolutely untrue,” he explained. “The causes of infection of viral hepatitis are varied and may not even be the fault of the sufferer. Some patients do not know how they contracted the virus, and probably never will.”

“Ordinary people can get infected, even through everyday activities such as pedicures, as well as lifestyle activities such as tattooing. But because there is this stigma, those who are diagnosed are very hesitant to come out in the open and get treated. It is vital that we debunk these myths, and get the right messages across. Countless people’s lives depend on it,” he added.
“I think what you do once you’ve been diagnosed is more important than how you became infected,” said a 54 year old patient currently undergoing Hepatitis C treatment, who requested anonymity.

Coming together for World Hepatitis Day

To raise awareness of the disease and drum up support for those afflicted with Hepatitis, several counseling and support groups are set to lead the celebration of World Hepatitis Day in the Philippines along with HSP and pharmaceutical company MSD.

“There are many organizations that are supporting the screening for hepatitis in the general population because there are possible cures already. There are groups that are encouraging the government to set aside a certain budget towards the control of hepatitis in the Philippines, and one of these is CEVHAP or Coalition on the Eradication of Viral Hepatitis in the Asia-Pacific,” remarked Dr. Sollano.

Also lending their support are the UGAT Foundation, a non-government Jesuit apostolate which recently developed the Counseling, Processing and Empowering Patients with Hepatitis C (COPE with Hep C), and the Yellow Warriors Society of the Philippines (YWSP) which was formed a few years ago to promote awareness and prevention of Hepatitis B in the Philippines.

“Counseling and support are just as important to patients and their families as the treatment, especially in dealing with a disease as damaging and traumatic as Hepatitis,” said Alfred Koa, Business Unit Leader of MSD Philippines. “We are honored to be working hand in hand with these groups in fighting Hepatitis in the country.”

Hepatitis screening and free clinics

This year, HSP plans to hold several screening programs and free clinics on July 27 to 28 in different tertiary hospitals in Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao. They will also conduct “Hepatitis B Huwag IpagsantaBi (Libreng Konsulta at Talakayan patungkol sa ATAY),” a forum on viral hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, and liver cancer in various venues.

MSD providing discounts, easier access to treatment for Hepatitis patients

MSD, meanwhile, launched its Patient Education and Persistence (PEP) Program last year with the goal of providing hepatitis B and C patients with easier access to treatment.
“Through our PEP Program, nurse educators are able to provide patients on pegylated interferon alfa-2b the information and support that they need while on therapy. We also made sure that aside from their doctors and their loved ones, patients have real people who they can gain strength and support from,” Koa remarked.

“We have also launched our Integrated Cure Campaign where patients can avail of as much as 50% discount on MSD viral hepatitis drug. We also provide free HBV-DNA and HCV-RNA testings that are otherwise a burden for patients who are monitoring their progress. On top of this, we also provide free ribavirin to Hepatitis C patients on pegylated interferon alfa-2b. All patients prescribed with these drugs can automatically avail of our pricing scheme,” Koa added.

Risk factors and symptoms
Risk factors for Hepatitis include blood transfusions and organ transplants (particularly those done before 1992, when blood screenings became more rigorous), illegal drug use via needles, getting tattooed in non-licensed facilities, having unprotected sex with multiple partners, long-term dialysis, and being born to infected mothers.[2]

Symptoms that can occur with the infection include fatigue, appetite loss, abdominal pain or swelling, dark urine, nausea, vomiting, and yellow skin or jaundice.