About 500,000 Malaysians have hepatitis C, says health minister

KUALA LUMPUR - About half a million Malaysians are believed to have hepatitis C, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said, adding that many were unaware they were infected with the virus because of a lack of awareness.

If left untreated, hepatitis C can be fatal or lead to liver cancer or cirrhosis.

Dr Subramaniam said hepatitis C incidence rates increased from 3.71 per cent in 2009 to 8.57 per cent last year, The New Straits Times reported on Friday (July 21).

Hepatitis B infections were also growing, he said.

Although all newborns have received free hepatitis B vaccinations since 1989, he said the incidence rates of hepatitis B increased from 2.13 per cent in 2009 to 12.6 per cent last year.

The incidence rate is the number of new cases per population at risk in a given time period.

"The hepatitis B immunisation shot has proven to be somewhat effective, with a 95 per cent coverage rate. Adults may want to get booster doses of hepatitis B vaccine," he said.

Dr Subramaniam said the increased prevalence of chronic hepatitis B and C meant more people would end up with cirrhosis and liver cancer.

He stressed the need to step up efforts to identify patients at risk of the blood-borne virus.

"Screening for hepatitis C at various levels needs to be enhanced and treatment prioritised to patients who are at higher risk of developing advanced liver disease," The New Straits Times quoted him as saying.

Dr Subramaniam said the government was working with international agencies to make the cost of treatment affordable.

He added that Malaysia also saw a phenomenal increase in the number of non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases.