Tomorrow is World Hepatitis Day. Knowing what hepatitis is about can prevent premature suffering and death from liver diseases, which are afflicting more and more people these days.
Hence, as designated by the World Health Organization (WHO), every year on July 28, medical professionals, health workers, patient organisations, civil society, industry and activists all work together to boost the global profile of viral hepatitis.
Viral hepatitis is one of the leading causes of death globally, accounting for 1.34 million deaths per year – which is as many as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria.
Together, hepatitis B and hepatitis C cause 80% of liver cancer cases in the world.
Here in Malaysia, it is estimated that there are about 500,000 Malaysians infected with hepatitis C, representing 2.5% of the general population.
The prevalence is even higher among people who inject drugs (PWIDs).
Hepatitis C is a devious and dangerous disease because it is asymptomatic – a condition that shows no symptoms, sometimes for as long as 30 years.
What this means is that people infected with the virus will often appear to be healthy and unknowingly spread the disease to others through all that time.
Studies have shown that by the time those infected by hepatitis C actually do become ill and present a serious liver condition caused by it, the virus would have taken a severe and usually irreversible toll.
The devastating outcome of hepatitis C infection can be fibrosis, at the cirrhotic stage, or even liver cancer.
By then it would be too late to reverse the condition, with a liver transplant being one possible solution, or suffering and death pretty much imminent.
In addition, there is the possibility that the patient may have unknowingly infected countless others in the preceding years or, worse yet, in the decades before.
In conjunction with World Hepatitis Day 2017 tomorrow, the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) together with Coalition PLUS and the “artivism” organisation, Artsee Networks, will be launching a digital arts and social media-driven public education project “code-named” #MYXHEPC.
#MYXHEPC can be deciphered as either “Malaysia without Hepatitis C” or “Malaysians against Hepatitis C”, said Artsee co-director, Michael Xavier Voon.
The project comprises the #MYXHEPC Mentorship phase, conducted by leading practitioners from the creative industries, such as graphic design, digital media, video and film-making.
These mentors will conduct screenings and discussions, forums and workshops on their respective skills, bundled together with a short presentation on the hepatitis C situation in Malaysia and how this might inspire creative works.
This is then followed up by the #MYXHEPC Clever New Media Contest where those who had attended the mentoring talks, screenings and workshops, as well as anyone interested, can participate and submit their entries to win cash prizes.
Voon explained that entries could be in the form of a poster, a video, or a viral-friendly meme, which could even be animated for a specific category.
Filmmaker and the man billed as the Father of Malaysian Animation, Hassan Muthalib, is one of the creative luminaries leading the panel.
The project has been conceived for the digital generation, which is the young and even the old who are drawn to using digital tools and apps.
Public response will generate digital content about or involving hepatitis C, which will in turn drive public awareness and conversations.
Shangeetha Thirumayni, senior executive at MAC helming the project, was upbeat about #MYXHEPC, hopeful that “it can heighten awareness of hepatitis C, how to check its spread, and even in recognising its ‘hidden’ burden, which is the devastating ramifications and negative impact that hepatitis C will have on lives, healthcare systems and government finances, directly as well as indirectly, if we do not address its growing prevalence”.
One frightening fact about hepatitis C is that the virus is known to survive outside the body, sometimes up to 60 hours, so this is why skin tattoo and acupuncture equipment, razors, toothbrushes and nail-clippers, not to mention syringes, if indiscriminately shared without sterilisation or inadequately disinfected are likely pathways of transmission.
The good news is hepatitis C can be treated using DAAs (direct acting antivirals), which thankfully has a cure rate of more than 90%.
However, these DAAs are very expensive, but it is to the Malaysian government’s credit that it is working towards obtaining these drugs for RM1,000 in three years’ time.
Meanwhile, creating widespread awareness on hepatitis C is an essential first step to stem its rise.
Malaysian AIDS Council President, Bakhtiar Talhah, explained, “Given that HIV and hepatitis C have overlapping modes of transmission, co-infection is a significant public health concern.
“With 25 years of experience in carrying out collaborative community based programmes with the Health Ministry, we believe that we can take advantage of our current enabling mechanisms, which support the national strategic plan to end HIV by 2030.
“These mechanisms can be used to work with our 46 partner organisations across the country, which could carry out the hepatitis C community based testing in reaching out to the key population that would eventually create awareness on hepatitis C among the risk populations and masses.
“Demand for a test if you think you are from the high-risk group category and educate others on hepatitis C,” urged Bakhtiar.
Those most at high-risk for hepatitis C are those who had a blood transfusion before 1994, injected recreational drugs, have a history of needle-stick injury, those with tattoos or had unsterile acupuncture and children whose mother are hepatitis C patients.
Others who should be vigilant are those with promiscuous sexual lifestyles, those who snort cocaine using shared equipment, and those who have shared toothbrushes, razors and other personal items with a known hepatitis C carrier.
In looking forward to the roll-out of #MYXHEPC, Khalil Elouardighi, Coalition PLUS Advocacy Director, said, “Since 2016, Coalition PLUS, thanks to the support of UNITAID, has created a network of civil society organisations based in seven middle-income countries, including Malaysia, to work in favour of the removal of the barriers to access to hepatitis C care: diagnostics and treatment prices, discrimination of key populations and lack of awareness.”
For more information on the project, visit www.myxhepc.com, www.artsee.net, or look for #MYXHEPC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.