Back grey_arrow_rt.gif
Hepatitis B: The Forgotten Virus
  Wall Street Journal COMMENTARY By BRENDAN GRABAU August 15, 2005
It may be foolhardy to pick or play favorites when it comes to the devastating effects of global epidemics and infectious diseases. Nonetheless, it's interesting to observe the amount of medical and media attention devoted in recent times to SARS and bird flu, and to fears they may become global epidemics. Yet at the same time, other catastrophic global epidemics, such as hepatitis B -- that are already with us and comparable in scope to HIV/AIDS -- receive far less attention.
The Ministry of Health in China announced recently that a total of 754 people were killed by 27 kinds of infectious diseases in the country's 390,418 infection cases in July. Interestingly, none of these deaths were caused by either contagious SARS or human-contracted highly-infectious bird flu. Indeed, the five most infectious diseases in China include hepatitis B, while the five causing the most fatalities include HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B.
Globally, two billion people have been infected with hepatitis B, and around 400 million of these are chronic infections. Each year 10 to 30 million more people become infected with the virus. That shouldn't be surprising, since the hepatitis B virus is 50 to 100 times more infectious than the HIV virus. It is a potentially life-threatening viral infection of the liver. Those who develop chronic infection have an increased risk of liver scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. More than half a million people die each year from liver cancer and 80% of liver cancers are caused by hepatitis B.
But now there is good news. The Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. recently recommended approval of a new treatment for chronic hepatitis B that gives hope for millions throughout the world, including many in Asian countries. It is another example of the global pharmaceutical industry meeting the unmet medical needs of communities with serious diseases (treatments for malaria, sleeping sickness, polio, smallpox, HIV/AIDS and river blindness being just some examples).
With new hope for treating chronic hepatitis B just around the corner, are there any lessons that can be learnt from the HIV/AIDS global epidemic? Will the pharmaceutical industry receive the accolade it deserves, for its high-risk investment in producing another life-saving medicine -- a process that takes on average takes 12 years, at cost of more than $1 billion. Or will the industry be subject to the same unwarranted, politically-motivated attacks leveled at last year's World AIDS conference in Bangkok, despite having developed a host of life-saving anti retroviral treatments for HIV?
The cost of hepatitis B is enormous and one can only imagine the savings that a daily tablet affords compared to hospitalization, surgery and liver transplant. Independent research in the U.S. shows that every additional dollar spent on medicines save more than six dollars on other more expensive other medical interventions.
If we forget hepatitis B it is at our own peril -- and at that of millions of people in Asia from all walks of life, now and in the future.
Dr. Grabau is a consultant pharmacologist and frequent media commentator on global-medical issues.
  icon paper stack View Older Articles   Back to Top