Huge gains made against diseases

Updated: Mar 28, 2018 China Daily Print
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China has joined the world's front ranks in preventing and treating AIDS, hepatitis B, tuberculosis, influenza and other major contagious diseases, officials said on March 27.

The nation will continue to optimize its disease control network and systems, train more top tier talent, create original and cheaper medicines as alternatives to imports and aim to become a world leader in combating major infectious diseases by 2020.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of implementing the major national science project on preventing and treating AIDS, viral hepatitis and other infectious diseases. "China has improved its disease control systems by leaps and bounds with the program," said Liu Dengfeng, the director of the project's implementation and management office.

China has created a robust monitoring system that covers all provinces and regions, including a network of 554 hospitals and 408 online laboratories to detect and track flu outbreaks, Liu said.

The nation also has made breakthroughs in key technologies related to AIDS, hepatitis B and TB in the past decade, significantly reducing their spread and lowering their mortality rate to the level in developed countries, Liu added.

For AIDS, China is able to produce its own potent HIV screening agent, reducing the waiting time for results from 28 days to seven. New domestic drugs and prevention methods have cut the cost of AIDS treatment by 79 percent, and reduced the spread of HIV between spouses by 62 percent, he said.

The death rate for acute severe hepatitis has dropped from 88.1 percent to 21.1 percent, while the death rate for chronic severe hepatitis dropped from 84.6 to 56.6 percent. Less than 1 percent of children below the age of 5 carry hepatitis B virus due to new vaccines and enforcement policies.

Diagnosis of TB has shortened to within six hours from four to eight weeks. The accuracy of identifying the disease from sputum doubled from 25 percent to more than 50 percent, making early diagnoses more accessible and convenient, Liu said.

Of all contagious diseases, influenza is arguably China's most common and troublesome public health challenge because "a new virus can occur at any moment, and small mutations in older, weaker viruses can quickly become dangerous and catch health workers off guard", said Xu Jianguo, deputy chief engineer of the project.

In January 2017, China was the first country to report that a type of H7N9 bird flu virus that was relatively safe had mutated into a highly contagious and dangerous variant. Disease control protocols had swiftly been put into effect and averted a potential massive outbreak, Xu said.

"In the past, we had to rely on foreign data and vaccines," he said. "Now we can take the initiative in combating outbreaks, and share our knowledge to help other countries."

In 2017, China provided the World Health Organization with a complete genome sequencing analysis for more than 530 strains of influenza viruses, allowing the WHO to predict possible outbreaks and plan vaccine production accordingly, he said.

China may launch a new flu vaccine that can protect against four types of influenza viruses by year's end, said Zhong Wu, a researcher at the pharmaceutical engineering center of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

"A common cold and flu are two completely different illnesses, but people often misjudge or neglect their flu symptoms, thinking their bodies can pull through," Zhong said, adding flu is highly contagious and can cause fevers above 39 C, but symptoms of a cold are not as severe.

Wang Dayan, a researcher in virology at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said, "Vaccination is the most convenient and effective defense against flu."

However, many people either do not have the money or the time to get yearly flu shots, or wrongly believe flu shots can make people sick, she said. "Better availability, heath education and cheaper vaccines are needed to bolster the nation's defenses against future influenza outbreaks."

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