Experts: Annual day focusing on virus draws attention to lack of effective medicine in China
China has nearly 10 million hepatitis C sufferers, but only about 1 percent of them have ever received treatment, a leading expert said.
That could seriously undermine a WHO global target to treat at least 80 percent of patients by 2030.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that is caused by a virus. Chronic hepatitis brings a high risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is estimated by the WHO that about 400,000 people die each year in China from hepatitis-related complications.
"Patient access to treatment, which remains unavailable, is key to fight the epidemic," said Zhuang Hui, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
World Hepatitis Day falls on July 28 each year.
The most effective medicines, direct-acting antivirals that cure hepatitis C viral infection, are available globally, except in China.
Many of those infected have gone overseas to seek medication, according to Wei Lai, head of the Hepatology Institute at Peking University.
In response, China's drug authority in May vowed an acceleration of the registration process for direct-acting antiviral treatment.
Zhuang, a member of the drug assessment expert panel, said at least two direct-acting antivirals would be approved within the year and probably hit the market early next year.
A patient surnamed Bai, who got the hepatitis C virus during a blood transfusion in 1989, said: "It's long awaited, and Chinese patients should have better treatment options, which patients abroad all have access to."
To survive the disease, he bought direct-acting antivirals from abroad and was cured last year.
The success rate for the current standard treatment in China is between 44 and 70 percent, but the treatment is usually fraught with major side effects and often takes a long time, said Duan Zhongping, vice-president of Beijing You'an Hospital.
Direct-acting antivirals, however, can clear the virus over an average 12-week course of treatment, and with few adverse reactions.
WHO China representative Bernhard Schwartlander said: "Another challenge now is also to make sure that people living with hepatitis avoid catastrophic expenditures in order to get the treatment and care that they urgently need."
Zhuang agreed, citing a hepatitis C cure by Gilead Sciences.
The medicine costs more than $50,000 in the US and $1,000 in India to cure the patient due to a tiered pricing mechanism.
The price in China might be around 6,000 yuan ($925), he said, citing previous discussions with Gilead.