National Head of Gastroenterology and Hepatology Datuk Dr Muhammad Radzi Abu Hassan said previously, Hepatitis C treatment was only available in hospitals, but the government had decentralised testing and treatment to give patients more access.
The health clinics are equipped with Hepatitis C antibody rapid diagnostic test (RDT) kits and direct acting antivirals (DAAs).
The high-risk group for Hepatitis C, which transmits mainly through blood, includes intravenous drug users who share needles, those who had blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1994 and those who share personal items such as razors, accidental injury when handling contaminated needles, dialysis and possibly those with tattoos and body piercings.
“Some of the clinics have screened more than 50 patients each since the recovery movement control order (MCO) was announced in June,” he said.
In July 2017, The Star carried a front page story highlighting the plight of Malaysians who suffered from Hepatitis C.
Only a fraction of patients were able to afford the full course of treatment that could cost up to RM300,000.
Universiti Malaya consultant hepatologist Prof Dr Rosmawati Mohamed had then estimated that more than 500,000 Malaysians aged between 15 and 60 were infected with Hepatitis C, but 74% or 386,000 had active or persistent infection which required treatment.
Subsequently, the government issued a government-use compulsory licence to enable the import of generic versions of the Hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir after failing to reach an agreeable price with the drug company.
In March 2018, the drug combination sofosbuvir and daclatasvir was delivered and used in the Health Ministry’s hospitals.
Besides the usual blood samples collected for laboratory testing, the Health Ministry and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, funded by Unitaid, introduced and tested the Hepatitis C RDT in 25 health clinics starting March last year.
Dr Muhammad Radzi said the majority of patients were non-cirrhotic and could easily be treated at health clinics but those with advanced stage of cirrhosis would be referred to specialists.
“The challenge is getting people screened at an early stage, when it is asymptomatic, especially the younger age group who use drugs because they may not be aware that they have been infected,” he said.
People with the infection usually do not have noticeable symptoms for 20 to 30 years even as it damages the liver and other organs.
In a webinar on the “Importance of decentralised, simplified and early HCV testing” in conjunction withWorld Hepatitis Day on July 28, Dr Muhammad Radzi said that in support of the World Health Organisation 2030 elimination targets, Malaysia simplified testing methods using the RDTs and decentralised screening using the kits at primary healthcare sites (clinics) as part of standard care, as well as DAAs treatment.