Hepatitis B – the undiagnosed ‘silent disease’ affecting 55,000 Aussies

An alarming report from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity reveals as many as 55,000 Australians may unknowingly be living with hepatitis B.

Of that number, more than 20,000 are Victorians and over 16,000 from New South Wales. The concerning figures align with a dramatic decrease in hepatitis B testing rates across Australia.

The figures are in a report titled Viral Hepatitis Mapping Project: National Report, Hepatitis B 2021 (published 2023) and show an 18.2 per cent decrease in the number of hepatitis serology tests between 2020 and 2022.

The reason for the concern is that hepatitis B and C account for most cases of liver cancer in Australia. In Victoria, liver cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer-related deaths.

Testing numbers had been steadily increasing in the seven years from 2013 to 2019, but they plummeted in 2020. COVID is believed to be a key reason.

Cancer Council Victoria chief executive Todd Harper says: “There are many reasons why we’ve seen a decline in testing and we know people’s attitudes towards health appointments have changed over the last few years due to the pandemic.”

He is urging Australians to take up the challenge of reversing the trend. “Now it’s time to get back on track and talk to your GP about hepatitis,” he says.

Why wasn’t I aware of this?

Medically speaking, the pandemic has been the centre of attention. However, it’s fair to say that hepatitis would not have been front of mind for most Australians even before 2020.

Professor Ben Cowie, from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, refers to hepatitis B as “the silent disease”. Most people who contract the disease have no symptoms, with diagnosis of liver cancer often coming when it’s too late.

He finds this particularly galling for two reasons. First: “We have had simple blood tests for hepatitis B for over 50 years.” And second, while there is no cure for hepatitis B, once it’s diagnosed, an effective treatment is readily available.  “There is a daily pill with almost no side-effects that can treat hepatitis B and it prevents liver cancer.”

Many people may believe that alcohol consumption is the main cause of liver cancer. In truth, most people acquire hepatitis B at birth or in early childhood. 

Should older Australians be concerned about hepatitis B?

If you have children and/or grandchildren born this millennium, they will be protected, with hepatitis B added to the national immunisation program in 2000. That leaves the rest of the population potentially unprotected.

State and federal governments are looking at ways to reduce the risk and incidence of hepatitis-induced liver cancer. The Fourth National Hepatitis B Strategy 2023–2030 is currently open for public consultation. Universal testing with informed consent for adults is one key action being considered.

Some groups are at higher risk of contracting hepatitis B: those born in parts of Asia, Pacific Island countries, the Middle East, the Amazon Basin and sub-Saharan Africa. These areas are described as “hepatitis B endemic regions with limited or no access to vaccines”.

If you have concerns regarding hepatitis, discuss the matter with your GP. With diagnosis available via a simple blood test, finding out if you are hep B positive might be a shock, but it may well save your life.

Were you aware of the cancer risk posed by hepatitis B? Or that there’s a simple test that could save your life? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Surprising things that could damage your liver

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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