Contaminated Needles Spread Hepatitis in China


UOPING, China-More than 60% of Chinese people are suffering from hepatitis B-a virus that infects only 1% of Americans by comparison. Experts believe the leading cause of this epidemic is infected needles.

People in rural area of China believe an injection can cure many ailments. Physicians, many of whom have little to no medical training, are quick to feed the need for injections because they can receive more money for treatment. The problem lies in the medications that are being injected and the lack of sterilization.

Used needles and other medical supplies are often sent to recycling centers where they are stripped, rinsed, and repackaged. However, many rural physicians do not send their medical equipment out to be recycled unless they see blood on the instrument. Needles are frequently reused. Those returned to physicians are frequently contaminated as well.

Add this practice to a common belief that injections are necessary for good health, and an epidemic is born. Hepatitis B, a viral disease that attacks the liver, causes nausea, pain, and fatigue. It can become a chronic infection, leading to liver failure or cancer. While liver cancer is rare in Western countries, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths in China.

A 2000 survey found that up to 65% of children in rural counties were receiving injections for colds. These injections often include four medicines: two antibiotics that are unnecessary, an antiviral drug that is useless against a cold, and a powerful steroid that actually weakens the immune system. While 9% of children are born with the virus, one study estimates that 34% of children are infected by age 6.

Hepatitis B can be transmitted through childbirth, sexual intercourse, or through infected medical equipment. Researchers are left to theorize that most children are becoming ill via infected needles considering only a small portion of the population is infected at birth and a large portion is infected before becoming sexually active.

While a vaccine is available in the US, it is not included in the Chinese government's vaccination program. The majority of rural children do not receive this vaccination because of the cost.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently began work in other Asian countries to vaccinate children against hepatitis b-diphtheria virus. See accompanying article, "Gates Vaccinates Asia" for more information.

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