Health ministry proposes national hepatitis plan

DUBAI // The Ministry of Health announced yesterday that it would launch a national strategy to combat hepatitis and push for better screening.

The announcement was made ahead of the first World Hepatitis Day on July 28. The statement, however, appeared to contradict a decision made last August to relax the visa medical testing rules. Hepatitis B is a deportable disease for which – up until last year – every expatriate wanting to live and work in the country would be tested for. Positive results would lead to deportation.

In August the ministry announced the tests would only apply to six categories of workers – nannies; housemaids; nursery and kindergarten supervisors; workers in hairdressing saloons, beauty centres and health clubs; anyone working in processing or food-control authorities; and those employed in cafes and restaurants.

Yesterday, Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the assistant undersecretary for health policies at the ministry, said that although hepatitis was not a widespread problem, the ministry would, nevertheless, take measures to make sure all ages were vaccinated against the disease and all expatriates were tested before being granted residency. He did not comment on whether it remained a deportable disease.

He said that once the strategy was eventually implemented they would provide free hepatitis testing in selected laboratories. The push was prompted by the announcement of the first official World Hepatitis Day on July 28. Figures from the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi show that there were 711 cases of viral hepatitis b in 2010. Of these, 478 were expatriates.

“We aim to protect society from this disease through using a number of health awareness lectures and encouraging all to follow healthy behaviours, especially the youth generations,” he said.

The ministry will begin by organising awareness workshops about the dangers of hepatitis, as well as its complications and ways to protect oneself from the disease, Dr Fikri said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) chose July 28 as World Hepatitis Day because it is the birthday of Dr Baruch Blumberg, who discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967 and, two years later, discovered a vaccine for the disease.

Hepatitis can cause inflammation of the liver and chronic viral hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. The WHO estimated that 350 million people worldwide were living with chronic hepatitis B and about 170 million people were living with chronic hepatitis C; globally, one in 12 people had some form of hepatitis.

Dr Fikri stressed that complications from hepatitis B and C resulted in the death of 1.5 million people annually, according to WHO estimates.

Although no specific hepatitis data was available in the UAE, the WHO estimated in 2002 that 2.5 per cent of the population were infected with hepatitis C.

Dr Adnan Hammour, a liver specialist at Abuhamour Medical Centre, said that at least 30 per cent of patients with hepatitis C were not aware they had the disease, and 90 per cent of people with the condition were not being treated for it.

“Millions of people can reach their 40s and 50s, after having had the ‘silent disease’ for 10 to 20 years with mild symptoms, if any, and then find that it is so advanced that liver cancer or cirrhosis has set in,” Dr Hammour said. Symptoms of hepatitis C include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, and fatigue.

Dr Fikri said the ministry wanted to address this problem.

“We will implement health preventive programmes such as early screening of the disease, premarital tests, health fitness tests for job applicants, residency tests for expat labourers and regular checkups for school and university students,” he said.

The ministry also co-ordinates with the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Health Authority to make sure all children were vaccinated before starting school. Parents must provide proof of vaccination before children are granted admittance to school.

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