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One in five adult Rohingyas infected with hepatitis C

  • Staff Correspondent
  • 9th March, 2022 08:23:10 PM
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A recent study by the National Liver Foundation of Bangladesh has found more than one in five adult Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar camps infected with hepatitis C virus.

The study, ‘High Prevalence of Hepatitis B and C Virus Infections Among Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: A Growing Concern for the Refugees and the Host Communities’, was published in Clinical Liver Disease, the journal of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in January this year.

Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection carries a long-term risk of cirrhosis. Called the "silent killers", they cause liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure and are behind about 1.1 million annual deaths globally.

Liver cancer was the third leading cause of cancer death in Bangladesh, said Prof Mohammad Ali, the study’s lead author and founder of NLFB who performed the country’s first successful liver transplant in 2010.

Bangladesh is hosting over a million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char island.

In 2017 and 2019, the National Liver Foundation of Bangladesh (NLFB) assessed HBV and HCV prevalence among pregnant women and the general population in the Cox’s Bazar Rohingya camps. A total of 300 pregnant Rohingya women and 2,000 refugees from among the general population at the camp were screened for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and HCV antibodies (anti-HCV), reads the study.

The study found more than one in five adult Rohingya refugees infected with HCV and 26 per cent of adult females testing positive for anti-HCV. HCV was found in 8 per cent and HBV in 3 per cent pregnant women who also had a high prevalence of HBsAg and anti-HCV positive tests with potential for perinatal transmission to their infants. "This was alarming," said Prof Ali, one of the seven recipients of ‘Hepatitis Elimination Champion 2021 Award’.

In Bangladesh, HBV prevalence is estimated to be 5.5 per cent and HCV 0.6 per cent. The study said HCV prevalence among the Rohingya, 18 times higher than in the general population of Bangladesh, is likely to pose challenges to the healthcare systems as there was "every possibility" of transmitting HBV and HCV to the host community.

Adult males had the highest prevalence of HBV. Hepatitis B was found in nine per cent males and five per cent females. Among all age groups, HCV was found in 11 per cent of refugees, while the percentage of HBV was four per cent.

Both viruses spread through blood, blood products and body fluids. Poor injection safety and deficient hepatitis B vaccination of newborns are prime considerations for transmitting the viruses among them, Prof Ali said, calling for urgent national measures to prevent their spread to the host community.

He said the small study offered an initial concept about the presence of diseases in a vulnerable society and called for well-organised studies to assess the risk for viral transmission and the capacity of health systems in the camps.

Prof Ali said that the key consideration should be to make a comprehensive viral hepatitis control strategy for Rohingya refugees.