Geneva, 28 July 2014 – With 1.4 million deaths every year attributed to acute and chronic liver disease, the United Nations health agency is marking World Hepatitis Day by calling on countries to intensify efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat one of the world’s most serious diseases.
“For years, viral hepatitis has been largely neglected,” says Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) in her remarks on the Day. “But now we are beginning to see greater awareness and global momentum building to tackle it.”
Viral hepatitis – a group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E – affects millions of people worldwide, causing acute and chronic liver disease. Testing is key namely because most people with hepatitis do not know they are infected, as often symptoms only appear decades later after serious liver disease sets in.
At this year’s World Health Assembly – composed of health ministers and other representatives from all WHO member States – 194 countries emphasized how important it is for countries to have comprehensive national plans to tackle hepatitis and invest in effective prevention strategies. These include comprehensive programmes for people who inject drugs, assuring access to safe injections and blood transfusions, and expanding immunization programmes.
As more people living with both HIV and hepatitis receive HIV treatment, they survive long enough to develop hepatitis-C related cirrhosis and liver cancer. WHO estimates that as many as five million people are infected with both HIV and hepatitis B and similar numbers are infected with both HIV and hepatitis C. It is essential that this link be addressed, urge experts.
“The experience gained by HIV programmes in scaling up comprehensive prevention and treatment programmes, improving access to affordable medicines and diagnostics, engaging communities and reaching vulnerable and marginalized populations can do much to inform viral hepatitis responses,” says Dr. Hiroki Nakatani, WHO Assistant Director-General.
New drugs have the potential to transform hepatitis C treatment, with safe and simple treatments resulting in cure rates of over 90 per cent, WHO says. The agency is also developing new methods to prevent and manage hepatitis B, and is working closely with communities, clinicians and donors to make medicine affordable.
“Increasing access to curative treatment for hepatitis B and C and expanding hepatitis B vaccination, and other prevention strategies, provide real opportunities for us to save lives and prevent suffering,” says Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, WHO Director of the HIV Department.
Already plans are being developed in a number of low- and middle-income countries to rapidly expand access to treatment.
“We are urging ministries of health to ‘think again’ about hepatitis and develop policies that translate into prevention and life-saving treatments.”
In a statement, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov said the shame, stigma and discrimination levelled against those with drug-use disorders must end.
Of the 12.7 million people estimated to have injected drugs globally, around 50 per cent are believed to have contracted Hepatitis C. Those who inject drugs and who suffer from hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS need to be treated in the same way as all other medical patients.
“If we fail to confront these challenges head on, and unsafe injecting practices continue, the health risks are potentially disastrous. Hepatitis C must, therefore, be integrated into the prevention and treatment services provided to those who inject drugs,” Mr. Fedotov added.