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28 Jul 2020

World Hepatitis Day: New data shows drop in hepatitis diagnoses amid COVID-19 pandemic

On World Hepatitis Day, the Doherty Institute and Cancer Council Victoria are urging at-risk Victorians to prioritise viral hepatitis as a health concern as new data reveals a 41 per cent drop in hepatitis diagnosis tests in April and May 2020, compared with April and May 2019. 

The data, prepared by the National Viral Hepatitis Mapping Project from Medicare Australia records also shows an 21 per cent decrease in hepatitis B monitoring tests in April and May 2020, compared with April and May 2019 in Victoria. 

The latest Viral Hepatitis Mapping Report demonstrates that even before COVID-19, less than half of all people living with chronic hepatitis B (CHB) have ever had a viral load test to assess their disease status and need for treatment, and only 11 per cent had monitoring at the frequency recommended in clinical guidelines. 

Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Viral Hepatitis at the Doherty Institute, Professor Benjamin Cowie, said this data highlighted the risk and severity of delaying vital healthcare due to COVID-19. 

“We cannot allow ourselves to accept the current levels of diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of hepatitis B. While many lives have already been saved with current levels of treatment, so much more can, and must be done,” Professor Cowie said. 

“We need to fundamentally shift our approach to providing care to people living with CHB and encourage at-risk communities to prioritise hepatitis B as a health concern. Early diagnosis and monitoring of hepatitis B are essential to save lives.” 

In addition, data in the latest Viral Hepatitis Mapping Report shows the serious health consequences faced by a lack of access to treatment and care for chronic hepatitis B (CHB) in Australia. If we do not improve current care delivery, over 1,700 people will lose their lives due to preventable mortality from CHB between now and 2030. 

If hepatitis B is left untreated, it can lead to scarring of the liver and liver cancer. Without treatment, up to 1 in 4 people living with chronic hepatitis B will die early from liver cancer. 

Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Council Victoria, Todd Harper, highlighted the urgent need to increase the levels of diagnostic testing and monitoring for people living with CHB to reduce their risk of developing liver cancer. 

“We know that people living with chronic hepatitis B can lead healthy lives. With regular tests every six months and treatment when needed, liver cancer can be prevented in the long run,” Mr Harper said. 

“Liver cancer is the fastest growing cause of cancer death in Australia. We must prioritise the treatment and care of hepatitis B to reduce the preventable deaths associated with liver cancer across Australia,” 

“We recommend that people at higher risk of CHB get tested. Speak to your doctor - they can give you a simple blood test to check for hepatitis B and information about free hepatitis B vaccinations.” 

For more information on the Viral Hepatitis Mapping Project, which maps the prevalence, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of hepatitis B and C, visit the WHO Collaborating Centre for Viral Hepatitis webpage. To find out more about the links between hepatitis B and liver cancer, visit the hepatitis B and liver cancer webpage on the Cancer Council Victoria website. 

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