icon-    folder.gif   Conference Reports for NATAP  
43rd Annual Meeting of the European Association For The Study Of The Liver
Milan, Italy
April 23-27, 2008
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Hepatitis B an issue 'too hot to handle' in Australia
  Adam Cresswell, Health editor | April 28, 2008
PEOPLE with the incurable viral illness hepatitis B are missing out on vital services because the disease is seen as a racial hot potato, according to a top Australian virologist who criticised the Government for failing to tackle the problem.
Stephen Locarnini, director of the World Health Organisation's Collaborating Centre for Virus Reference and Research in Melbourne, said at an international meeting of liver specialists in Italy that while HIV and hepatitis C benefited from having patient advocacy groups lobbying, hepatitis B was largely ignored despite affecting almost 200,000 Australians - more than 10 times as many as HIV, and comparable to hepatitis C.
However, far from being evenly distributed across the Australian population, patients affected by the hepatitis B virus were heavily concentrated in specific ethnic groups.
Professor Locarnini told The Australian that not only did government health bureaucrats see the issue as radioactive for that reason, but the communities most affected were also uneasy with attempts to highlight the problem in case that suggested to Australians at large that the minorities were riddled with an incurable and communicable disease.
As a result, the disease received a fraction of the funding of the better-recognised viral illnesses, and patients had more trouble accessing services and had to pay more for them when they could get them.
"The bureaucracy is of the view that the vaccine will eventually control the disease, so why bother (with effective treatment programs)?" Professor Locarnini said. "It's an ethnic issue - the bureaucrats are very nervous about dealing with it ... because it's a race issue, the Asians don't want advocacy.
"They don't want people to say 'Let's champion the Asians, they have hep B' - that's the last thing they want."
Hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine, but the vaccine cannot root out existing infections. Although 95per cent of infections in adults will be cleared naturally, children are less able to shake it off. The virus causes an acute illness that can cause jaundice but the real problem is that chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
About 10 per cent of Asian and Mediterranean people are thought to be infected, as are 6 to 8 per cent of eastern Europeans and about 5 per cent of Africans.