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UK Pakistanis and 'silent' hepatitis

By Sarah Hobbs

Shabana is on the train north, and happens to be sitting next to a GP. She decides to ask him the differences between how a person contracts hepatitis B and hepatitis C. It is a table seat, and he is stuck with her for at least two hours.

He humours her, and answers her questions.

He gets it wrong for hepatitis C.

Shabana Begum is a community officer working for the Hep C Trust. She previously contracted and ‘cleared’ – successfully treated – hepatitis C, from a visit back to Pakistan as a child when she was taken to the doctor. Poor medical practice – re-used, unsterile medical equipment – accounts for most cases of the virus amongst South Asian communities in the UK, but stigma is huge – something Shabana knows first hand.

Department of Health and NHS campaigns regarding both hepatitis B and C have focused on the White British population, and the common ways the viruses are contracted within this group – primarily, intravenous drug users, and men who have sex with men. The association with drug, sex and alcohol means that the illnesses are very rarely talked about.

However, there is variation in common ways to contract the viruses across different demographics.  As both viruses are transmitted through blood-to-blood contact or through bodily fluids, there are various ways they can be contracted.

The most common way to contract hep B amongst the Pakistani community in the UK is through mother to child transmission (MTCT); for hep C it is through poor medical practices, most often back in the home country. This includes re-use of razors for shaving and haircutting; re-use of needles for injections, vaccinations and other blood-related medical procedures such as transfusions. For the Muslim community, particular care must be taken around the head-shaving ceremony for babies, circumcision, and preparation for Hajj and Umrah.

Working with the Blizard Institute at Barts and the London, The Hep C Trust and the Pakistani community in East London, we will be producing a new health resource to help reduce rates of hepatitis B and C, suitable for both community members and GPs/medical practitioners. Low levels of knowledge amongst both the community and GPs are causing cases to go untested. Patients are sometimes turned away as doctors deem them to be ‘not at risk.’

Both viruses can be fatal if left untreated, leading to liver cancer and cirrhosis. It is known as the ‘silent epidemic’, as both viruses can be asymptomatic for decades, and only present once it is too late for treatment.

Both can be caught early through a simple blood test done by a GP.

Spread the word!

“Think about your visits home – if you ever visited the barber, or if you had to seek medical treatment and had to have an injection for anything. This might be a long time ago – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. If any of these things happened, get tested. If someone close to you or in your family has ever had hep B or C, get tested.”

Shabana Begum, Community Officer, Hep C Trust (former hep C sufferer)