Our results show that even in our sample of highly educated healthcare providers and public health professionals, HBV- and liver-cancer-related knowledge, practices, and education were deficient, especially among health workers from rural provinces of China, those with lower general education, and nurses, midwives, and elementary school staff. HBV-related knowledge scores were higher among participants from areas with patient-directed HBV test notification procedures and strict needle disposal practices, suggesting that HBV knowledge and sound health policy are intertwined. Taken together, our findings demonstrate the need for improved, targeted education and training of health professionals in regions with low HBV-related knowledge in order to increase preventive practices and decrease rates of transmission and morbidity and mortality due to chronic HBV infection.
Recent progress in China
Several noteworthy advances have been made in HBV prevention and knowledge in China during the past decade. In 1992, the Chinese government recommended routine hepatitis B vaccination of infants, but high vaccine prices and user fees barred all but the wealthiest persons from being vaccinated [15
]. Therefore, in 2002, the Chinese Ministry of Health partnered with the GAVI Alliance (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) to distribute hepatitis B vaccines to economically disadvantaged provinces and counties in western and central China. Furthermore, in 2005, all charges and user fees for the hepatitis B vaccine were abolished, making the vaccine free to all children in China. As a result of these programs, timely coverage with the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine increased from 29.1% among children born in 1997 to 75.8% among children born in 2003; and completion of the hepatitis B vaccine series rose from 70.7% among children born in 1997 to 89.8% among those born in 2003. Coverage rates were even higher in the provinces and counties targeted by the China-GAVI project [15
]. Additional gains in HBV-related knowledge and prevention among healthcare providers and public health professionals could spur further acceleration in the pace of HBV prevention and control throughout China, bringing vaccination rates ever closer to 100%--particularly in the underaddressed population of children and adolescents born before 2003. In this latter group, successful pilot catch-up vaccination programs [21
], as well as strong evidence that such programs would be cost-saving in China [24
], may provide the impetus needed to implement a nationwide universal catch-up vaccination program for children and adolescents.
Perhaps due in part to the recent progress in HBV prevention in China, most HBV knowledge questions on our survey were correctly answered by more than half of the participants, and the median overall score was 81% correct. Nevertheless, we found that critical gaps in HBV knowledge are still present among trained health workers in China. In particular, one-third of health workers in China were unaware of the typically asymptomatic nature of chronic HBV infection, as well as the endpoints of the disease, such as end-stage liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and premature death. Health workers lacking such knowledge may overlook the importance of screening asymptomatic children and adults, and vaccinating those who are susceptible. These observations are consistent with our findings that health workers who scored significantly higher on HBV knowledge-based questions had also been screened and vaccinated for HBV themselves.
Some health workers also fell short when it came to knowledge about the basics of preventing the further spread of the disease. One-third of health workers surveyed were not sufficiently informed about all the modes of transmission and the best ways to prevent transmission, including vaccination and safe needle disposal practices. Such lack of knowledge among health workers could translate into similarly deficient knowledge in the general population, thereby contributing to insufficient preventive practices that enable the persistence of high rates of HBV infection.
Based on our findings, these HBV knowledge deficits were most substantial in rural regions of China. This disparity may be partially attributable to the reported difficulties in HBV training, vaccine transportation, vaccine storage, and vaccine costs in rural areas, where 21.5 million live below the official "absolute poverty" line [17
]. Indeed, a quarter of surveyed individuals reported that there are no free hepatitis B vaccines available in their city/village. Yet, it should be noted that vaccine availability was not necessarily associated with better HBV knowledge. For instance, individuals from cities/villages that provided free vaccines to health workers scored marginally lower on HBV knowledge-based questions than those from cities/villages with only purchasable vaccines. The reason for this paradox is unclear and may be attributable to a lack of accompanying provider education even when the vaccine itself is available.
Health worker knowledge concerning the importance of newborn vaccination was high. In 2002, infant hepatitis B vaccination was added to China's National Immunization Program, and the China-GAVI Project was launched [15
]. Consistent with these government-led initiatives, our results show that the great majority of health workers knew that newborns have the greatest risk of becoming chronic HBV carriers, and that a timely HBV birth dose given to newborns is the best way to prevent transmission.
Our results also showed that nurses, midwives, and elementary school staff had significantly lower HBV knowledge scores than physicians, albeit based on a small sample size. This result suggests the need to target HBV education to nurses and midwives, some of whom are the only health workers present at the time of newborn delivery in rural regions, where low-income families tend to give birth at home [15
]; and to provide better HBV information to elementary school teachers and administrators, who can play a critical role in promoting catch-up hepatitis B vaccination among vulnerable schoolchildren who were not vaccinated at birth.
Additional obstacles to prevention
While improving provider and health worker knowledge regarding HBV prevention is a necessary first step toward HBV prevention, other additional obstacles often hinder translation of knowledge into effective preventive practices. In 1993 Clayton et al. performed a study using a different self-administered questionnaire to evaluate HBV knowledge and preventive practices among 260 village doctors in the mostly rural Minhou county of the Fujian Province [17
]. They found that provider knowledge often did not translate into preventive practices with their patients. According to Clayton et al., 90% local village doctors in Minhou county correctly identified the modes of HBV transmission. However, when asked to give medical advice to imaginary patients, only 8.5% of the survey respondents advised vaccination and only nine (3.5%) cautioned an HBsAg-positive patient against giving blood. The authors of the study suggested that HBV information may have been memorized, but not enough training was given on how to put that information into practice. Their findings contrast with those from a 2007 study done in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, where greater provider knowledge about the risk factors/guidelines of HBV-associated primary liver cancer in Asian Americans was correlated with greater HBV screening efforts [26
]. This country-to-country difference suggests that gaps in implementation of preventive practices in China cannot be accounted for by lack of knowledge alone.
One explanation could be the stigma of chronic hepatitis B--a widespread basis for employment, school, and social discrimination in China, but not in the United States. A quarter of all health workers we surveyed stated that they report a positive test result to the patient's school, and an even greater proportion report the results to the patient's employer. These reporting policies suggest that an underlying prejudice against chronically infected individuals in China may deter at-risk individuals from getting screened (even if screening is available) and subsequently receiving the vaccine or being monitored for liver cancer. In an effort to curtail HBV-related discrimination, the Chinese Ministry of Health and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security co-issued a notice in 2007 stating that an employer shall not refuse to employ or dismiss an HBV carrier because of his or her infection status, unless the person is banned from the job by laws, regulations, or Ministry of Health rules [27
]. In December 2009, the Ministry of Health further announced that it would soon prohibit the long-standing practice of mandatory HBV testing during physical exams given for employment or school enrollment, signaling further progress in fighting discrimination [28
]. However, methods for supervising and enforcing this new policy are unclear. Furthermore, poor HBV-related knowledge in the general population--and, most likely, among health professionals--still perpetuates social discrimination against chronically infected individuals in China [19
Our research should be viewed with the following limitations in mind. Firstly, all collected data were self-reported and therefore not verifiable. In particular, there was some inconsistency in the collected data (i.e., participants provided multiple answers to questions that asked for only one answer), indicating that some of the reported information was unreliable. Secondly, because our study was cross-sectional in nature, we cannot attribute causation to individual factors. (i.e., we could not show that being screened for HBV leads to greater HBV knowledge, or vice versa). Lastly, because of the non-random sampling of health workers, our conclusions have limited generalizability to other health workers in China, since all the participants were relatively well-educated health workers whose work specifically involved addressing health risks pertaining to liver cancer. However, given the inadequate HBV-related knowledge in this highly educated sample, it is reasonable to assume that other health workers have similar or poorer knowledge about HBV. Insofar as health providers are the individuals most trusted to provide health information and healthcare to the public at large, better education of healthcare providers and public health professionals is critical to disseminating HBV-related knowledge and preventive practices throughout the population of China.
Implications for future initiatives
In spite of the limitations, our study also has several strengths. To our knowledge, there have been no other studies on HBV knowledge and practices performed on such a broad representation of health professionals from different provinces in China. Given the absence of prior data, our findings present novel and valuable information regarding the presence and nature of knowledge deficits among local health workers, as well as demonstrating a direct relationship between low HBV-related knowledge and insufficient HBV preventive practices.