Hepatitis C is the second leading cause of liver disease after Hepatitis B. However, it can now be cured with oral antiviral medications. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced the goal of eradicating viral hepatitis by 2030, and Taiwan has set the goal of eliminating Hepatitis C by 2025.
To achieve this goal and provide treatment opportunities for all patients, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has launched the “Hepatitis C Eradication Program in Indigenous Communities” to prevent and treat Hepatitis C in four indigenous communities with a high prevalence of the disease: Alishan Township in Chiayi County, Taoyuan District in Kaohsiung City, and Xiulin and Zhuoxi Townships in Hualien County.
Professor Chia-Yen Dai, Vice Superintendent of Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital, has served in mountainous communities for nearly 25 years and is responsible for the program in the Taoyuan District in Kaohsiung City.
“The infection rate of Hepatitis C in Taoyuan District is about 14%, mostly due to an insufficient healthcare environment in the past,” Dai says. At the beginning of the program, all 1,073 residents were screened, except for one person who passed away, yielding a screening rate of 100%. “This is the most difficult part, as it is not easy to convince the public to participate, so health personnel set up booths, held concerts to promote the program, and even went door-to-door and directly to the fields to find people.”
Seventy-two people tested positive in the screening, and 70 (or 99%) accepted treatment after deducting the one person who passed away and another who refused treatment. According to World Health Organization standards, Taoyuan District in Kaohsiung City successfully eradicated Hepatitis C in 2021, becoming the first area in the program to achieve this goal.
According to Professor Dai, the implementation of this project owes its success not only to the efforts and contributions of all healthcare personnel and project participants involved but also to the crucial provision of free, orally administered antiviral drugs. In the past, treatment primarily involved the injection of interferon, which had significant side effects and often led patients to discontinue treatment, thereby reducing its effectiveness. The current oral medication not only has high efficacy but also has fewer side effects and is convenient to take, helping increase the willingness of the general public to undergo treatment.
“When the Ministry of Health and Welfare launched the ‘Hepatitis C Eradication Program in Indigenous Communities,’ we began to think about our role,” says Pongo Peng, General Manager of Gilead Sciences Taiwan, who donated free oral antiviral medications for the program. “Medical resources in indigenous communities are relatively scarce, and local health clinics do not have a budget to purchase oral medications. Many people have to travel two hours back and forth to the hospital for treatment. Although National Health Insurance covers the medications, not everyone is eligible. If we can donate oral medications directly to the local area, we can help those affected in these vulnerable areas.”
Projects like this exemplify the “health equity” concept that Gilead Sciences is committed to, ensuring everyone has access to medical care regardless of economic status, location, or other restrictions.
“Gilead Sciences has voluntarily licensed HIV medication to some generic drug manufacturers to broaden the accessibility of treatment for patients in low- and middle-income countries,” Peng says. “This helps prevent the virus from spreading and affecting the overall public health environment.”
Peng notes that Taiwan’s public health strategy is already used as a model internationally. Past initiatives such as administering Hepatitis B vaccines for newborns and more recent measures to combat Covid-19 have shown the world Taiwan’s capabilities. Gilead Sciences understands the importance of a sound public health system in preventing infectious diseases, especially for vulnerable populations, where it can mean the difference between life and death.
Supporting the “Hepatitis C Elimination Program for Indigenous Peoples” is just the beginning. Gilead Sciences will continue to actively collaborate with industry, government, and medical professionals, staying true to its commitment to eliminating health inequalities and helping Taiwan achieve new milestones in public health.