Hepatitis numbers higher for Indigenous: study

Indigenous peoples in countries including Australia are much more likely to be infected by hepatitis B and C than the general population, an international study has found.

Researchers from the Polaris Observatory in Colorado presented their findings to the two-day World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference on Viral Hepatitis in Alaska, prompting calls for more to be done.

Hepatitis B and C are viral infections that if untreated can cause serious liver damage, liver cancer and death.

Both can be transmitted through contact with the blood of an infected person, sexual transmission, injection drug use, unsafe medical procedures and unsterilised tattooing.

For hepatitis C, people who received a blood transfusion before 1992 are also at higher risk.

The research looked at the prevalence of both viruses in the Indigenous and general populations of Australia, North America, South America and New Zealand.

It found that hepatitis C rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were three times higher than the general population.

“The higher prevalence of anti-HCV observed in Indigenous peoples and nations can be the result of disproportionately high rates of poverty, injection drug use, and incarceration in Indigenous populations,” the researchers said.

“This, in combination with the lack of access to healthcare and prevention measures, greatly increases the risk and thus prevalence of hepatitis C.”

For hepatitis B, the data showed Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders in Australia were four times more likely to have hepatitis B than the general population.

Chief executive of the World Hepatitis Alliance Raquel Peck said the data confirmed Indigenous people around the world were bearing a disproportionately high burden of hepatitis B, C or both.

“More must be done to ensure that Indigenous peoples everywhere are at the heart of hepatitis treatment and prevention programs,” she said.

An estimated 71 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C infection and 257 million have hepatitis B.

Most people with hepatitis B virus are adults infected before the hepatitis B vaccine became widely available.

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