Call for change to Hep B screening program

According to researchers about 71,000 Australians are unaware they are living with hepatitis B and in a recent Perspective piece published by the Medical Journal of Australia, they argue that testing should be offered to all Australians aged 20-79 years to increase the rate of diagnosis rather than only screening risk groups.

The authors of the article say that the current system of only screening risk groups for hepatitis B is failing a third of people living with the chronic disease in Australia.

Hepatitis B reportedly affects more than 225,000 Australians and if left untreated can lead to serious outcomes such as liver cirrhosis and cancer in up to 25% people, despite being generally asymptomatic.

It is most commonly acquired at birth or in early childhood when there has been inadequate access to vaccination – it’s said to disproportionately affect Australians born overseas.

“[The] number of people living with hepatitis B in Australia has continued to increase due to the addition of people who acquired the disease in their country of birth,” says Professor Benjamin Cowie, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Viral Hepatitis at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

“This leaves an estimated 71,000 Australians undiagnosed and at risk of significant adverse outcomes.

“We believe that guidelines should now recommend that all Australians aged 20-79 years whose hepatitis B status has not been documented should be offered testing.”

Professor Cowie and colleagues call for “fundamental change” to the screening program to “allow the more than 70,000 Australians with undiagnosed hepatitis B to be informed about their condition and to enable them to access care and potentially life-saving treatment”.

“To not do so will further entrench the status qua and the ongoing preventable morbidity and mortality associated with late diagnosis of hepatitis B,” he says.

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