The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation Combats Chronic Hepatitis B in Asia

--  About 400 million people worldwide are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus.

--  Three-quarters of these people reside in Asia.

--  Some 130 million of those infected live in China.

--  More than 30 million are estimated infected in India.

NEW YORK--()--Yet, for the millions infected, significant disparities in care and treatment remain and a wide range of barriers exist that must be overcome in order to help them. Addressing health disparities for those suffering from chronic hepatitis B in Asia is one of four areas of focus announced earlier this year by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

The need for this focus is clear. In local communities in many parts of Asia, particularly in rural locations, there is a lack of awareness of hepatitis B, resulting in continued transmission of the hepatitis B virus, most commonly from mother to child. Despite the availability of vaccines and antiviral treatment regimes, lack of awareness also means the condition often remains untreated, leading to a high incidence of liver disease. Not only is the general population unaware of the impact of hepatitis B, local governments and many health care workers are also largely unaware.

In 2002, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation began working in China to support hepatitis B education and vaccination efforts and to help prevent mother-to-child transmission. In its first program, it partnered with the China Foundation for Hepatitis Prevention and Control to support a successful hepatitis B vaccination education program in six rural areas in China, training nearly 2,000 local health care workers. The pharmaceutical company foundation has extended that partnership to a two-year program to build on efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmissions of the virus through free screening programs and other education efforts in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, where disease awareness is low and infection rates continue to be high.

“To effectively combat chronic hepatitis B, we will have to tap into the power of communities,” says Phangisile Mtshali, a director in the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, who will lead foundation efforts to fight hepatitis B in Asia. “The integration of community services and medical care is a powerful combination to improve health education and outcomes.”

Mtshali, director for SECURE THE FUTURE® in southern Africa, will draw from lessons learned through that program to enrich efforts addressing the hepatitis B situation in China. “We learned through SECURE THE FUTURE® that mobilizing and enabling community leaders to talk openly and frequently about HIV ultimately mainstreamed the disease,” she explains. “Many sectors and organizations found ways to combine HIV prevention and testing messages with other health education being done at the village level. These learnings will help guide our programs in Asia where appropriate.”

Building capacity of health care providers to integrate education and treatment about chronic hepatitis B into existing programs is a key area being explored for additional programmatic development and funding. “China currently has a well-developed health network functioning throughout the country,” Mtshali says. “Integrating chronic hepatitis B training, education and treatment into that primary care system will help overcome significant barriers to hepatitis education and prevention in China.”

Ultimately, the foundation plan is to create a portfolio of hepatitis B-focused programmatic initiatives and partnerships in Asia -- with China being the initial focus. The power of focusing on the integration of community services for greater health outcomes creates an opportunity wherever possible, to transfer lessons of education, treatment and care from one disease to another or one geography to the next.