ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday February 24, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 39

Hepatitis preys on poor families

By Nadia Fazlulhaq

The possibility of children and adults infected with viral Hepatitis spreading the disease to others without even being aware that they are suffering from the disease is very real, Epidemiology Unit’s consultant epidemiologist Dr. Risintha Premaratne said. According to Dr. Premaratne a patient exposed to the virus takes about a month to show symptoms of the disease and during that period the patient might unknowingly be instrumental in spreading the disease.

“Most affected are children. Even at schools, work places and the neighbourhood there may be people carrying the infection but showing no symptoms. By next week or the week the number of patients may well increase. So it is important to take all possible preventive methods immediately” he said.

Encouraging children to eat home-cooked food, keep cooked food covered, use soap to wash hands before and after meals and after use of the toilet, avoid eating exposed food, drink only boiled water (the virus may be present in pipe-borne and well water), keep toilets clean, avoid eating green leaves/leafy vegetables, maintain a house free of flies, avoid eating food from boutiques, disposing of all faeces even that of an infant, into a toilet, well-washed fruits and vegetables, a piece of soap should be sent to school encouraging children to wash their hands before and after using the toilet and before and after eating are some of the precautions that health officials advise everybody should adopt.

The public are advised to see a doctor as soon as symptoms of the virus become apparent and to inform a Public Health Inspector of the area. Parents are requested to take their children to a doctor as soon as they notice the children having a temperature.

“The risk is everywhere. The organisms are transferred through contaminated food and water and faeces of infected people. In some areas there is community based water systems, which does not provide proper chlorination and result in possible contamination. Chorine should be added to such water systems but it takes time for the added chlorine to be activated,” Dr. Premaratne said and added that while last year some 5836 viral hepatitis cases were reported only 51 cases had been reported so far this year.

He said there was a high risk of contacting the disease in the hill country especially in Badulla, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya districts. Early this year there was an outbreak in the Mawanella MOH area when some 32 people were reportedly infected.“We have a social responsibility to stop diverting the drainage pipes to a nearby stream or canal and thereby polluting the water,” Dr. Premaratne said.

Hepatitis A virus is rapidly spreading in the Colombo north area and adding to the number of patients. Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ruwan Wijeyamuni said more than 90 percent of the infected were children and that the CMC Public Health Department was carrying out massive awareness programmes alerting and educating people on methods of controlling the spread of the disease.

“These areas provide favourable conditions for the spread of the organism and only needs a source of infection. There is a huge immune-free population in the country and with the disease spreading fast there is bound to be a massive outbreak in Colombo and in the outstations if timely precautions and preventive methods are not adopted,” he said.

Dr. Wijeyamuni made an appeal for donors to contribute towards building public toilets in these vulnerable areas, as poor sanitation has been one of the main causes for the spread of viral Hepatitis. R. Nandani, a mother of five has been living by the side of a canal in Bloemendhal and all her children are suffering from viral hepatitis.

“We are living here for more than 18 years and our children are victims of this disease,” she said. Exposure to contaminated food, water and the lack of proper toilets are health hazards they have to cope with while living in these shanties conducting a regular battle with the disease. G.A. Herath who has been living in this area since 1981 said that complaints made to relevant authorities has been of no use as no one appears to be taking any interest in cleaning this area.

“Nothing has been done to clean the canals and making sure these diseases are controlled by implementing strict regulations punishing those who dispose faeces into the canal. Most people have diverted their sewerage pipes to the canal and the area is teeming with flies and mosquitoes.

There are no toilet facilities so it is no surprise that diseases like Hepatitis A are spreading rapidly in these areas,” he lamented. Sandrauwan, a pale skinned 11-year-old-boy had been bedridden for more than a week suffering with the Hepatitis A viral fever. When the Sunday Times visited his house it was sad to see that a single room was being used as a kitchen as well as a toilet. How can a couple of public toilets cater to the needs of hundreds of poor families living in the area in deplorable conditions?

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