The "screen-and-treat" initiative for hepatitis B may reduce deadly complications of the virus, according to a new study.
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The study, published in the journal The Lancet Global Health, suggested that the programme is cost effective and may be able to prevent complications of the disease.
To track hepatitis infection, the researchers ran a pilot study testing people for the virus in communities in Gambia, West Africa.
In the "screen and treat" programme, the researchers used a cheap instant test to screen around 6,000 people for the virus in the Gambian community and referred infected individuals for further liver tests and treatment.
They also screened around 6000 blood samples from blood banks where some donor's blood was infected with hepatitis B. If an infected sample was detected, the researchers contacted the donor and referred them for tests and treatment.
"Hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet most patients do not realise they are infected until they develop severe symptoms," said Maud Lemoine, researcher at the Imperial College London.
The new study found 9 per cent of individuals and 13 percent of potential blood donors tested positive for the hepatitis B virus. However, of those screened only 4 per cent of the individuals tested were deemed to have infection severe enough to require treatment with antivirals.
The initiative also had a good screening coverage of 70 percent, and the patients who required the antivirals kept to their medication schedule over the next year, suggested the study.
"Our study shows that screen-and-treat programmes targeting the general population are a feasible -- and successful -- intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa, and should be implemented in other areas in the continent," added Lemoine.
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The hepatitis B virus infects around 250 million people worldwide and is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. However the virus causes no immediate symptoms, and can remain silent in the body for decades until triggering severe complications such as liver damage (cirrhosis) and cancer.