Targeted screening for Hep C very effective: HKU

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong said on Tuesday that a hepatitis C screening programme targeting a high-risk group has proved highly effective and will help cut transmission of the disease.

The HKU team said they have been testing former drug users who shared needles since late 2019, and results as at February this year showed 84 percent of the 140 participants were infected with the largely asymptomatic illness.

Dr Loey Mak, an assistant professor of medicine, said they came up with the scheme because only 0.3 percent of the Hong Kong population – or about 22,000 people – are infected with the disease and it is hard to find patients through mass testing.

“We do not have a population-based screening programme, so patients only have their hepatitis C virus screened when they have other medical conditions such as abnormal liver function, or as part of the workup for other chronic illnesses such as renal failure,” she explained.

She said they therefore decided to team up with different NGOs to reach out to needle-sharers who faced a high risk of hepatitis C infection.

Researchers said participants who tested positive were given treatment much more promptly, with the average waiting time brought down from 175 days in a usual setting to 56 days.

Mak said this prevented the disease from deteriorating and leading to serious liver damage, and 90 percent of participants given prompt treatment fully recovered.

She said timely intervention also prevented spreading of the disease.

“Although they [the patients] are already in a drug rehabilitation programme, hepatitis C can still be transmitted via other routes, such as sharing a toothbrush or even a shaver,” she said.

Mak said they are now expanding the programme to cover former inmates, and hope to test 480 people in total before the year end.