Globally, about 240 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis B and about 150 million with hepatitis C but many people are not even aware of their conditions.
UAE's 'silent epidemic' must be addressed, doctors say
ABU DHABI // It is a potentially deadly virus that infects millions of people around the world but many have no idea they are infected.
“This is hepatitis. Know it. Confront it” is the theme of a campaign which aims to change that lack of knowledge.
The slogan marks World Hepatitis Day today and seeks to address what the World Health Organisation calls the “silent epidemic” of viral hepatitis.
Globally, about 240 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis B and about 150 million with hepatitis C. Both can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, so early intervention is vital.
In the UAE, doctors have spoken out to highlight the two illnesses, which are often misunderstood.
“Because of the ignorance people tend to have, there’s an attitude that they will be infected and these people should be isolated and they should not be given jobs,” said Dr Saeed Alshaikh, a consultant hepatologist at Dr Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Centre in Dubai.
The Emirati doctor said this attitude is wrong, adding: “Working alongside someone with hepatitis B is not a big deal because there is a vaccine and everybody should be vaccinated and immune,” he said, highlighting that vaccination is part of the UAE national immunisation programme.
Although there is no vaccine against hepatitis C, people should not be so afraid of getting it through working or living with someone who has it.
“It (hepatitis C) is not transmitted through living with other people, or even with couples – it’s very uncommon to be transmitted through the sexual route. The way of transmission is using contaminated needles and medical equipment or blood product,” he said.
Dr Huda Kataa, a consultant gastroenterologist, said many patients with hepatitis have no symptoms and are picked up inadvertently, either through a screening test for a visa or after a liver function test.
“The main thing is that, in the chronic cases, most of the patients, they are asymptomatic. So it is silent and this is why it’s called the silent epidemic,” said the doctor, who works at the American European Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi.
“The problem is patients are walking around, they have the virus, they don’t know about it and they can spread it to others.”
Some people may be reticent about seeking medical attention when they know they have it, added Dr Kataa.
“People might be scared to come forward. For many reasons ... because of the social stigma, they might just be afraid, they don’t know what kind of treatment they are going to see, so they are afraid of this, like many other diseases,” she said.
“It can be treated easily at the beginning but might be difficult and quite expensive to treat later on and it might cost their life.”
Hepatologist Dr Ali Al Sayed, of Al Noor Hospital, said the majority of hepatitis patients visiting his clinic suffer from hepatitis C.
“If I have 10 patients, at least seven of them are hepatitis C,” he said. “And two will be hepatitis B.”
While he does not have conclusive figures, Dr Sayed said the number of people suffering from hepatitis C is on the up.
“The numbers are always increasing,” he said, adding that the rise is due to the UAE’s burgeoning cosmopolitan population, with his patients representing at least 25 different nationalities.
“We have people coming from everywhere,” he said. “Most of the patients are coming from other countries where the healthcare or sanitary conditions are not good.”