Feature: China to vaccinate for hepatitis

By CHRISTIAN M. WADE, UPI Correspondent  |  June 8, 2002 at 8:31 AM
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SHANGHAI, June 8 (UPI) -- At the age of 12, Li Rong watched her father die a slow death from liver cancer, an ailment the doctors told her had been precipitated by a hepatitis B infection.

Shortly after, doctors determined her father had contracted the disease from a tainted blood transfusion he received two years earlier, following an accident at the factory where he worked.

"If he'd gotten vaccinated for the disease he wouldn't have died," said Li Rong, now 24. "People from his generation were never told about such diseases, others don't trust Western medicine."

Such stories are common in a country where an estimated 60 percent of people carry the hepatitis B virus, and where more than 10 percent are chronic sufferers. Health officials say thousands of Chinese die annually from hepatitis B, a leading cause of death in the nation of 1.3 billion people.

As part of an agreement reached last week, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, a project financed largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund, will provide $37.5 million to pay for a new vaccination program. The donation will be matched by funds from the Chinese government.

The funds will go towards paying for vaccines and 500 million syringes, as well as training programs for health workers, said Carol Bellamy, GAVI chair and executive director of UNICEF.

Hepatitis B is transmitted by body fluids. It can be passed on either through sexual intercourse, by sharing used syringes, in hospitals, and through tainted blood transfusions.

Recent studies conducted by the United Nations found at least one-third of children in China contract hepatitis B by the age of five, and many develop liver failure and liver cancer later in life.

Globally, hepatitis B is a serious health problem, causing the deaths of nearly one million people every year. Nearly one-third of these deaths occur in China and hepatitis B-related liver cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Chinese men, recent United Nations estimates suggest.

Poverty has played a major role in the high infection rate. Millions of Chinese cannot afford the high costs of medical treatment that have resulted from Chinese government reforms in the health care sector.

Over the next five years, the government has pledged to ensure every newborn child will be immunized against hepatitis B, local health officials in Shanghai told United Press International.

"China's healthcare system is undergoing major reforms, and that has meant cutbacks in funding for immunization programs," said Dr. Dong Mingli, a pediatrician at Shanghai's Huashan Hospital. "We are hoping that with the help of the international community, we can combat such diseases."

The doctor said the vaccine should cost around $4 per person. Although affordable for most urban residents, this still is too expensive for millions of China's rural poor.

"Our long-term goal is to make the hepatitis vaccinations more affordable for everyone," he said.

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