UN health agency spotlights impact of hepatitis B virus

21 August 2008

The United Nations health agency is launching a new information campaign to highlight the impact of the hepatitis B virus, which is currently found in about 2 billion people worldwide despite being largely preventable by vaccine for more than 25 years.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued factsheets today about the impact and spread of hepatitis B, which attacks the liver and can cause severe and chronic illness in sufferers, and even death.

More than 350 million people live with chronic liver disease and about 25 per cent of adults who became infected during childhood later die from liver cancer or cirrhosis as a result of the infection. Cirrhosis and liver cancer kill as many as 700,000 people every year.

The virus – which only affects humans – is transmitted through contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person, and not through casual contact such as by contaminated food or water, the agency reports.

The common methods of transmission are from mother to child at birth, blood transfusions, sexual contact, unsafe injection practices, and child-to-child.

Hepatitis B is endemic in China and other parts of Asia, with most sufferers infected during childhood. It is also prevalent in the Amazon basin of South America, the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Eastern and Central Europe.

WHO said there is no specific treatment for hepatitis B, a vaccine that is 95 per cent effective has been available since 1982. It called for all infants to be given the vaccine and for all children and adolescents not previously immunized to also be vaccinated.

Members of high-risk groups, such as injecting drug users and people who engage in high-risk sexual behaviour, should also be vaccinated, the agency recommends.

 

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