Health: Bhutan is witnessing increasing trend of viral hepatitis, predominantly Hepatitis B infection, said Health Minister Tandin Wangchuk yesterday during an event to observe World Hepatitis Day.

Between 2012 and 2014, hepatitis B prevalence in the country was between 2 and 2.5 percent, much higher than HIV prevalence.

Prevalence of hepatitis C remains substantially low.

Lyonpo said that the health ministry will commit to scale-up interventions to make people aware of the chronic disease and also make efforts to treat people infected with acute hepatitis B and C.

Following a serological survey, the country integrated hepatitis B vaccine to the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in 1997.

Bhutan will be carrying out nationwide hepatitis seroprevalence study by the end of the year, Lyonpo said. “This is expected to inform the public health strategic interventions for prevention and treatment of hepatitis cases in the country.”

Meanwhile, health ministry will develop innovative strategies and interventions that are best suited for the country so that the Bhutanese prevent themselves, their family and communities from the disease.

Lyonpo said that both bilateral and multilateral agencies should collaborate and partner with the ministry in its efforts to eliminate hepatitis B infection in Bhuta, until it no longer poses a public health threat.

Hepatitis is a disease caused by hepatitis viruses A, B, C, D or E, which affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide, causing acute and chronic liver disease.

Hepatitis A and E are transmitted through contaminated food and water, while hepatitis B, C and D viruses are transmitted through sexual contact, mother to child transmission during delivery, use of unsterile needles for intravenous drug use, tattooing, body piercing or accidental finger prick and sometimes through blood transfusions.

Almost 400 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis B and C, which is more than 10 times the number of people living with HIV.

An estimated 1.45 million people died of the disease in 2013, up from less than a million in 1990.

It is estimated that only 5 percent of people with chronic hepatitis know of their infection, and less that 1 percent have access to treatment.

Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk said that because of asymptomatic nature of chronic hepatitis B and C, most people infected with the disease are not aware of their status until they have symptoms of cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Lyonpo urged the public to avail of hepatitis B rapid screening facilities made widely available at all levels of heath care facilities and get treated if infected. Lyonpo also urged health workers to record the hepatitis incidence for better decision making.

WHO’s Dr Suraj Man Shrestha read the WHO Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh’s message to mark the day at the Youth Development Fund (YDF) multipurpose hall.

According to the message, in the South-East Asia region, viral hepatitis kills approximately 350,000 people every year. It is responsible for more deaths in the region than HIV and malaria combined, and is second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death. “As viral hepatitis is preventable, there is much that we can do to alleviate the burden. Through commitment, determined action and the use of existing technologies, we can end hepatitis as a public health threat within the next 15 years.”

HIV, STIs and hepatitis screening facilities were made available at the YDF for the participants that included government secretaries, president of the national referral hospital and Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan, representative from the UN agencies and officials from the health ministry, among others.

The theme for this year’s World Hepatitis Day was “Know Hepatitis – Act Now!”

Dechen Tshomo