In China, there are currently 130 million Hepatitis B patients. With the number so high, Hepatitis B— a potentially life-threatening disease and the leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer—is considered a “national” disease. But reducing the disease rate in China has been extremely difficult due to the lack of public education regarding the disease and available information regarding the right treatment, coupled with the myth that traditional treatments and folk remedies are as good as, if not better than, modern medical treatment.

With Baraclude, an innovative oral treatment for Hepatitis B from Bristol-Myers Squbb, due to be launched, the company felt obligated to break this thousand-year Chinese myth in order to lay the ground for its own scientific therapy. BMS commissioned the Shanghai office of GolinHarris to develop a public relations campaign surrounding the launch.

The objectives were to inform the target audience that Baraclude is an effective form of treatment for Hepatitis B, to promote the company’s leadership image, and to generate media coverage that carries the “reduce the viral load” message.; and ultimately to help drive sales and awareness of Baraclude.

The communications process started with research.

According to a survey in 2005 from the China Medical Association, more than half (60 percent) of Hepatitis B patients chose traditional Chinese or non-scientific treatment. 

A qualitative healthcare media audit (targeting reporters from general dailies and industry publications) also found that the majority of healthcare professional reporters had low awareness of how Hepatitis B should be treated and what treatments were available. It was therefore critical that these reporters received the right information and realized the seriousness of the disease in China so that they could ultimately inform the Hepatitis B patient audience.

Further, due to the fact that patients can contract Hepatitis B through sexual transmission or drug use, patients had been discriminated against. According to a survey from the China Medical Association in 2005, more than 60 percent of Hepatitis B patients worried about their status in society and inter-personal relationships. Many of those patients had resorted to the Internet to collect information and share their pain and thoughts. Hence they are “hidden” and therefore difficult to target.

Considering the attitude toward traditional Chinese medicine, the media audit, the discrimination experienced by Hepatitis B patients, and the sufferers’ preferred way of seeking information via the Internet, BMS decided to work with a credible non-government organization in order to encourage the Chinese government to pay attention to the need for education among patients of the most effective Hepatitis B treatment.

To educate the media, government and general public about the best methods for treating Hepatitis B, BMS sponsored a research project developed by the China Foundation of Hepatitis Prevention & Control (CFHPC). This first–of-its-kind project was the most comprehensive and in-depth Hepatitis report ever done in China, providing facts on the disease population, current treatment choices, social discrimination, and medical economic perspectives.

The report took nearly a year to complete, and BMS decided to announce its initial results prior to the launch of its new Hepatitis drug Baraclude in order to raise the awareness that effective treatment reduces the “viral load.” The press conference involved the attendance of a health department government official, industry key opinion leaders specializing in Hepatitis B, the chair of CFHPC, and key healthcare reporters.

At the research report press conference, an ice sculpture was distinctively created in the shape of Hepatitis B with a dummy of the survey book hidden inside. Attending VIPs were invited to “break the ice,” indicating the thousand-year Chinese myth was broken, providing a terrific media photo opportunity.

One challenge was that BMS had been campaigning about the right treatment of Hepatitis B and conducted several media sessions prior to the launch. Therefore creating a “new” news angle was difficult.  These challenges were overcome by employing a new media approach by cooperating with a healthcare channel within China’s biggest portal site SOHU.COM. 

GolinHarris arranged to set up a live web-broadcast of the press conference. The attendance of the Nobel Prize winner for BHV discovery (Dr. Baruch Blumberg, distinguished scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and Professor of Medicine & Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania) and the Baraclude inventor (Dr. Richard Colonno, vice president of infectious diseases drug discovery at Bristol-Myers Squibb), gave media more scope to create dynamic stories surrounding the Baraclude  launch and effective Hepatitis B treatment.

To ensure messages were delivered to the specific target audiences (patients, hospitals and doctors), 60 media were invited to the press conference from 23 cities in China that have high Hepatitis B morbidity rates.

Patients were informed about Baraclude through the live web-broadcast, which attracted more than 90,000 visits during the one-hour press conference. The drug’s availability covers 700 hospitals in 26 provinces/ autonomous municipalities nationwide as the first-line treatment for Hepatitis B. The approach of a live web-broadcast was not only effective in reaching “hidden” patients but also an efficient and cost-effective way to communicate the launch key messages to all media across China.

Through the sponsorship of the CFHPC research report on The Current Prevalence of Hepatitis Related Issues in China, BMS was successfully (and cost-effectively) promoted as a leader in treating Hepatitis B. Prior to its involvement, BMS was not recognized as an innovator in this particular area.

All coverage recorded a 100 percent message pick-up rate: “the key to effective Hepatitis B treatment is to reduce HBV viral load.” A total of 90 clippings were generated from the report announcement press conference and commercial launch, including 15 feature articles and 10 headline articles in the key publications.

Since the launch, sales of Baraclude have exceeded 300 percent of the original sales target within the three-month campaign.