Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 2 News List

`D-Day' in battle against Hepatitis B celebrated

VITAL FIGHT The 20th anniversary of the launch of the nation's Hepatitis B immunization program was commemorated by the Department of Health

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Twenty-three years on, Jackie Shao (邵于玲) still remembers the pang of grief when she lost her father to acute hepatitis B.

She also remembers an eight-year-old girl's confusion when she was diagnosed with the same disease three months after her father's death.

As Shao came of age, it dawned on her that she would carry the virus for the rest of her life.

"Now it doesn't bother me too much," Shao said in a calm tone.

As she is busy teaching at the Taipei Physical Education College, the dull pain captures her only when she takes a stroll down memory lane.

"I feel good to be alive," she said, "And I know I am lucky to survive."

Shao is lucky indeed, given the high prevalence and mortality rate of hepatitis B in Taiwan in the 1980s. Twenty years ago, one in six Taiwanese was born with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Three people a day died of liver cancer and cirrhosis incurred by hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B was Taiwan's national disease. Taiwanese referred to it as one's "destiny," since HBV was passed from mother to baby, from generation to generation. Even now, vertical transmission still accounts for 40 to 50 percent of total infections, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control.

As the specter of hepatitis B loomed over the entire country in the 1980s, the government was motivated to fight back. In 1984, it took the pioneering step of vaccinating every newborn. Taiwan became the first nation to launch a comprehensive vaccination program against hepatitis B.

Children born since 1984 have been immunized from HBV, which protects them for at least 15 years. The immunization policy has significantly reduced the prevalence of the disease in the past two decades, from 17 percent to 1.7 percent of the population.

"We fought the battle and we won the battle," Department of Health Director-General Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) told a press conference called yesterday to celebrate the vaccination program's 20th anniversary.

"We expect the disease to disappear by 2030," Chen said.

While the rate of new hepatitis B cases is low, health experts have called on the government and academics to tackle emerging health challenges.

Because the disease is trans-mitted via exposure to bodily fluids containing the virus, experts are worried that it may resurface if young people engage in unprotected sex or re-use contaminated needles, as their antibody levels may decline as they grow older.

In addition, not everyone who is vaccinated develops the necessary antibodies.

"About 10 to 15 percent of people do not respond to the current vaccine," said Chang Mei-hwei (張美惠), a professor in the department of pediatrics at National Taiwan University Hospital, who conducted research to monitor those who were vaccinated.

"The future challenge lies in our ability to develop more effective vaccines with longer protection," Chang said.

"Hepatitis B will never be extinct, but we can work to lower the prevalence rate, to 0.1 percent, and to 0.01 percent. It is a never-ending task," she said.

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