Special Feature

BY KATRINA PAOLA B. ALVAREZ, Special Features Assistant Editor

Live and Let Liver

Posted on July 28, 2011

TODAY MARKS the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first annual World Hepatitis Day. It may seem odd to recognize a disease that brands the infected with the stigma of uncleanliness, but Philippine doctors and support groups hope to use the occasion to dispel these very misconceptions.

Microscopic view of the hepatitis virus
At a press briefing held earlier this month, Yellow Warriors Society spokesperson Pamela Chan said: “The WHO describes hepatitis-B as 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV [human immuno-deficiency virus]. Unfortunately, it’s not receiving as much attention as HIV. Today, we begin to ‘popularize’ [hepatitis] in the sense that patients and advocates alike are more aware of the virus, its transmission, its control, and treatment options.”

Hepatitis is a disease primarily characterized by the inflammation of the liver. There are currently five recognized viruses, each named for a letter of the alphabet, with hepatitis-B considered the most serious strain in the world. Two-thirds of those who contract it may never be affected, but the remaining segment, if untreated, runs the risk of developing liver cirrhosis or worse, liver cancer.

At the briefing, doctors from the Hepatology Society of the Philippines (HPS) shared recent data that up to 16% of the country’s population may be positive for the hepatitis-B antigen. Dr. Judy Lao-Tan, HPS internal auditor, said that while there were many causes for the illness, the most prominent would be alcohol abuse, drug toxicity, viral infection, and transmission from mother to child during birth. The last is responsible for the majority of infections in the country.

As with other diseases, hepatitis may also be contracted from contact with bodily fluids from objects such as syringes, razors, nail clippers, and toothbrushes, as well as from sexual relations—especially if one party has had multiple sexual partners. These may be why hepatitis is associated with unsanitary practices, but the HPS exhorts the public against fear-mongering and passing judgment on those who live with the condition.

Unfortunately for hepatitis carriers, Philippine employers have used disease testing as a form of discrimination, leaving otherwise qualified citizens without a job. Thus, the HPS has been working with the government to balance the scales with workplace policies and programs on the illness. One recent victory is the Department of Labor and Employment’s advisory no. 5, released in December last year to provide guidelines for the implementation of such developments.

Except in circumstances where the worker would come into contact with bodily fluids, HPS founding president Erlinda Valdellon, MD explained that the current practice of screening as a basis of employment was unfounded—it is very unlikely that the disease may be spread through ordinary workplace activities. “Hepatitis-B screening should not be made mandatory. A positive result should not be a basis to discriminate, restrict, or disqualify an applicant from being gainfully employed,” she explained.

According to Dr. Tan, other acts that cannot transmit hepatitis include “when somebody coughs or sneezes in front of you, hugging a hepatitis-B carrier, [and] breastfeeding; children who are immunized will not get the infection.”

The role of vaccinations, which can be done within 24 hours of one’s birth, is especially important as researchers have yet to find a cure for the condition. Failing to take that preventive step can leave a chronic sufferer popping pills—or worse, enduring chemotherapy—that can only suppress, not kill, the virus attacking his or her body.

To promote awareness of the disease, the HPS will be holding lay forums for barangay health workers and free hepatitis-B testing in Cebu and Davao today. The society will also conduct free liver clinics in Cebu hospitals.