One in every three Hongkongers is infected with a bacteria that could lead to stomach ulcers or gastric cancer, according to a new study.
Although not all those infected will develop these issues, academics said there were two high-risk groups more likely to suffer from such complications.
Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, is a bacteria found in the stomach and digestive tract. The bacteria, which stimulates the secretion of gastric acid, can damage the mucous coating in the gut and is the main cause of ulcers. Its presence can also lead to gastric cancer.
An estimated two million people in Hong Kong, or 30 per cent of the entire population, are infected with the bacteria, according to a study conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In Asia as a whole, more than half of the population, or 55 per cent, have the infection, while the prevalence rate is highest in Africa, at up to 79 per cent. Some 4.4 billion people worldwide are infected, the study showed.
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“The study is the largest, most up to date comparative study that really provides an insight of the global burden of H. pylori around the world,” said Professor Ng Siew-chien of the university’s department of medicine and therapeutics.
The research team looked into a total of 14,000 studies spanning 46 years on the infection prevalence in the general population, covering about 530,000 people across 62 different countries and regions.
There are no known origins or mode of transmission for the infection, but available research shows that it is acquired before the age of 12 through infected mothers. Some other factors include the level of hygiene, such as limited access to clean water.
“However, there is no cause for alarm because not everyone will develop severe complications from this infection,” Ng said.
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Elderly people who suffer from conditions such as joint pain, are long-term users of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers and carry the bacteria are three times as likely to develope gastrointestinal bleeding.
Those with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, are also more at risk.
Most infected individuals have few or no symptoms until they develop gastritis, which is when they may experience minor belching, bloating and nausea.
Those with persistent stomach pains should seek a doctor, Ng said. Infected individuals can take a two-week course of antibiotics that can completely eradicate the bacteria.
Only a small minority develop resistance to a certain type of antibiotic and may need to take multiple courses of another antibiotic to be cured.
The bacteria is also a listed carcinogen for gastric cancer – the sixth most common cancer in Hong Kong – according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Ng added that a higher prevalence rate may not equal a higher risk of cancer. In Africa, gastric cancer is considered rare despite the high H. pylori infection rate. In Japan however, both the infection rate and gastric cancer rate are considered high.
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