The Health Ministry estimates that around 500,000 people nationwide have Hepatitis C, and may not be aware of it.
Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad said the figure is expected to go up by 2039, with more than 60,000 deaths to occur due to Hepatitis C.
“As of 2009, there were over 400,000 people living with Hepatitis C in Malaysia, including 2.5 per cent of the adult population aged between 15 and 64.
“While the number of new cases is already high, it is forecast to continue to rise steeply over the coming decades under the current levels of antiviral treatment.
“In fact, by 2039, it has been projected that there will be over 60,000 HCV-related deaths,” he added.
He said the ministry has not discounted the possibility that the number of people currently infected with Hepatitis C could be even higher, and that their victims are unaware of their condition due to low awareness levels.
“There is low level of awareness of the disease in Malaysia and because of this, screening for this disease results in missed opportunities for prevention, early diagnosis and medical care.
“To add to this, screening and confirmatory diagnosis of Hepatitis C are not widely available and remain largely centralised at tertiary care settings. This means that identifying those with the disease so they can be linked to care is a huge challenge,” he said.
In an efforts to diagnose and provide early treatment, the Health Ministry on Monday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Clinical Research Malaysia (CRM), on behalf of the government and Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND).
“We have about 400,000 to 500,000 people who are infected but don’t know they are infected.
“Through this collaboration, we hope to diagnose them by providing available, accessible and affordable tests. These are simple points of care for the people,” Dr Dzulkefly said.
Dr Dzulkefly said FIND and the Drugs for Neglected initiative (DNDi) will be collaborating with the ministry as well as CRM, its not-for-profit company, to overcome barriers for the diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis C.
“This will be done through assessing the feasibility of using rapid diagnostic tests in decentralised primary healthcare facilities and research and development of new innovative diagnostic tests.
“The HCV screening, using a World Health Organisation (WHO) pre-qualified rapid diagnostic test, will be conducted at 25 primary healthcare facilities within a catchment area of five district-level hospitals,” he said.
This project, said Dr Dzulkefly , will enable 50,000 people to be screened and 1,200 are expected to require treatment and be assessed for recruitment into DNDi clinical trial.
Currently diagnosis and treatment for Hepatitis C have been carried out at 22 hospitals and 25 government clinics nationwide.
“The findings of previous clinical trials have also shown the potential to bring down the treatment of the infection to just under RM1,200 from the current RM387,000 using generic drugs,” he added.
On another subject, Dr Dzulkefly said the ministry is paying greater focus on the target groups, especially the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in a bid to tackle the spread of HIV in Malaysia.
Commenting on the issue of trainee doctors being bullied by their seniors, the minister said he is now actively gathering information by holding meetings at various levels, including with trainee doctors, medical officers as well as specialists to tackle the problem.