“I didn’t know that I had the disease. The diagnosis came as a surprise and was especially distressing. I knew very little about hepatitis, but I knew it was serious,” said Mr Yen, a 64-year-old from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who was screened and tested positive for chronic hepatitis C virus in 2016 during a routine medical check-up.

There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus – A, B, C, D and E. Together, hepatitis B and C are the most common cause of death, with 1.4 million lives lost globally each year. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, viral hepatitis continues to claim thousands of lives every day.

Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver cancer or scarring of the liver. It is a bloodborne virus and the most common modes of infection are through exposure to small quantities of blood. Examples include sharing of needles and other injection equipment; reuse or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, especially syringes and needles in health care settings; transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products; or sexual practices that can lead to exposure to blood.

Many chronic cases of hepatitis C are undiagnosed, as the infection often remains asymptomatic for decades until symptoms develop due to serious liver damage. In Malaysia, as of the end of 2019, it was estimated that more than 400 000 individuals have been chronically infected with hepatitis C, but only about 1% of them have been treated.

The extremely high cost of a full course of treatment for patients and availability of testing for the virus has been a challenge in Malaysia in the past. However, thanks to the government’s initiative to tackle the virus, both testing and a three to six-month course of treatment are provided for free at government facilities since early 2018.

"In 2016, I was fortunate to receive support from my family and friends. If it wasn’t for them, it would have been very difficult for me to afford treatment. After about six months of therapy, I was cured,” said Mr Yen, who now volunteers at the Crisis Home, a non-profit and self-funded organization that provides care for individuals living with hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Their programmes include the management of shelter homes and community engagement through support and outreach.

Mr Yen added “I am happy and thankful to be part of the home and my hope for the future is to help others as they have helped me, and to educate youth on how to prevent and treat hepatitis and other diseases.”