Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Hep A crisis looms: health officials

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Deputy Director General of the Department of Health Chang Hung-jen, left, acting Director of the Center for Disease Control Shih Wen-yi, second right, and National Taiwan University Hospital physician Dr. Huang Li-min, far right, smash an ice sculpture of the Hepatitis A virus yesterday. The DOH is holding an awareness event to help in the prevention of the virus.

PHOTO: LIAO CHEN-HUI, TAIPEI TIMES.

An epidemic of the Hepatitis A virus is likely to erupt in the nation and leave the country's young devoid of antibodies against the infectious disease, health officials and experts warned yesterday.

Statistics from the Center for Disease control showed that 153 cases of Hepatitis A were reported by the end of August this year, up an alarming 40.4 percent compared with statistics from the same time last year.

Improved sanitation and more hygienic eating habits in the nation over the past two decades helped quell the liver infection. According to Chang Hong-jen (張鴻仁), deputy director-general of the department of Health, people aged 40 and over were usually affected during their childhood, and now have received treatment for the virus.

But now, the Hepatitis A is once again threatening those aged 30 and under who never experiences a Hepatitis A epidemic. As an increasing number of Taiwanese people travel to China and Southeast Asian countries where the prevalence of Hepatitis A is still high, the virus is more likely to cross borders and make inroads to Taiwan. According to Huang Li-min (黃立民), Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at National Taiwan University Hospital, people traveling to those countries might unknowingly become virus carriers, since the disease's incubation period ranges from 14 days to 40 days and early diagnosis is difficult.

"If the virus sneaks into our food industry, a full-scale epidemic like that in Shanghai in 1988 might hit Taiwan as well," Huang said.

The Hepatitis A outbreak in Shanghai is a grim reminder of the liver disease's lethal potential. It claimed 47 lives among the 310,764 patients infected. The average age of the patients was 27.

"Situations in Taiwan bear resemblances to those in Shanghai," said Shih Wen-yi (施文儀), the center's deputy director-general, "The risk is high when a large population has no antibodies and lack understanding of the disease."

The center's latest survey revealed that public awareness of Hepatitis A is limited. Only 39.2 percent of the 1,076 interviewees knew that Hepatitis A is transmitted through intake of contaminated food and water.

The center yesterday called on the public to wash hands before meals and make sure food is well cooked. Officials also urged lovers of the nation's night markets to opt for food stalls with a fixed location and a steady water supply.

Vaccines for Hepatitis A are available in hospitals and private clinics. They costs about NT$ 1000, but are not covered by national health insurance.

Huang suggested that the government should subsidize the medical costs for foreign spouses and children who make frequent visits to China and Southeast Asia. Huang added that chefs and people employed in the food service industry should also receive the vaccines regularly to fend off an outbreak of the virus.

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