[Viewpoint] Hepatitis strain

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[Viewpoint] Hepatitis strain

In 1997, the World Health Organization promoted the theme “Emerging Infectious Diseases - Global Alert, Global Response” on World Health Day. The goal was to create awareness among governments, medical professionals and the public on the threat of epidemic diseases and the dangers they pose to the health of the global community. More than a decade later, the fight is ongoing, and the issue is as alarming as ever.

The United Nations included a campaign to contain the spread of new infectious diseases as one of its 15 millennium challenges this year. According to a UN report, the world remains vulnerable to old diseases like malaria and tuberculosis and also faces 39 new types of infectious scourges like SARS, avian influenza and the latest flu virus - which have arisen over the past few decades.

Such infectious diseases claim more than 17 million lives every year. The history of mankind has evolved with the rise and fall of diseases, and pre-emptive as well as control measures have emerged as yardsticks to measure the health of a country or region.

Although it was eclipsed by the global outbreak of the A(H1N1) virus, hepatitis A proved vicious and invincible this year, with reported cases reaching 13,000, including 15 deaths. Yet with a little precaution, the infection can be prevented and contained.

The government should consider several strategies to address epidemics, using the lessons learned this year from hepatitis A.

First of all, to build an action plan against diseases, we need to investigate and file information on exactly what kinds of diseases are active on our soil and around the globe. That would include where the infectious agents originated from, how they propagated and how powerful the viruses are.

To protect against hepatitis A infection, washing hands and drinking boiled water are of the utmost importance, as it is primarily spread through contaminated water and food. The virus also can be imported from outside the country due to the growing number of people traveling to and from Southeast Asian nations and other areas where the disease is common.

We must also base our action plans on epidemiological data. Studies of hepatitis A patients show that young people in their 20s and 30s are particularly susceptible to the disease.

According to this data, hepatitis A symptoms are light among infants, partially due to vaccination. Adults between the ages of 20 and 40 are more exposed to the disease due to lack of initial or follow-up immunization and treatment. The overall trend suggests that more people in this age group will be infected next year.

Lastly, authorities should formulate short-term as well as longer-term measures to address these types of diseases after compiling infection and epidemiological data. The government has recently recognized hepatitis A as a type-1 legal communicable disease, which means it must make exceptional surveillance of the disease and take all necessary efforts to control it. But we are falling short when it comes to providing longer-lasting measures.

Politicians have proposed making immunization for infants and children compulsory and offering one-time vaccinations to teenagers. But the government rejected the suggestions, citing budget shortfalls.

Vaccination remains the only protection against hepatitis A in the absence of a cure. Cases of hepatitis B decreased substantially after immunization became obligatory.

Health authorities came under fire during questioning at the National Assembly last week for their slow response to the spread of hepatitis A. We anticipate more aggressive government efforts to battle infectious diseases in next year’s budget.

*The writer is the head of the Korea Association for Study of the Liver at Bucheon St. Mary’s Hospital Gastroenterology Department.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Young-sok
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