UN focuses on global efforts to prevent and defeat hepatitis

27 July 2011

The United Nations tomorrow will mark World Hepatitis Day for the first time to bring attention to the disease that affects almost one in every three persons on Earth.

The United Nations tomorrow will mark World Hepatitis Day for the first time to bring attention to the disease that affects almost one in every three persons on Earth.

“We know what needs to be done,” said Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Viral hepatitis is one of the most prevalent and serious infectious diseases in the world. It deserves much more attention, understanding and action. These are the goals we are aiming for today.”

The World Hepatitis Alliance, a non-governmental organization (NGO), has been marking 28 July as a day of awareness of the disease since 2008. The WHO’s governing body voted last year to join the effort with a worldwide programme of posters, radio and television spots and social media information campaigns.

The theme of the campaign – “Know it, confront it. Hepatitis affects everyone, everywhere” – was designed to highlight the fact that more than two billion people have been infected by the virus, and each year nearly one million deaths are attributed to viral hepatitis infections.

Dr. Chan said WHO’s first recommendation in the battle against the disease is to get tested, as millions of people carry the disease without any symptoms, but could develop life-threatening diseases later in life. WHO also calls for increased vaccinations for the strains that can be stopped by immunization, better screening for blood transfers and the use of sterile equipment in medical facilities.

“Safe food and water are the best protection against hepatitis A and E,” Dr. Chan said, “as well as many other diseases.”

According to WHO, hepatitis A occurs when a person eats or drinks something contaminated by the stool of an infected person, and is associated with inadequate sanitation and poor personal hygiene. An estimated 1.4 million cases of this strain occur annually. Improved sanitation and the hepatitis A vaccine are the most effective ways to combat the disease.

Hepatitis B, which is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person, is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease. About 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with the virus, about 350 million live with chronic infection, and an estimated 600,000 of them die each year.

The virus, 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV, is preventable with a vaccine. Common modes of transmission in developing countries are: from mother to baby at birth, unsafe injection practices, blood transfusions, and sexual contact.

Hepatitis C, which can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, life-long chronic condition that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer, is transmitted through contact with the blood of an infected person. About 130 million to 170 million people are chronically infected with it and more than 350,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver diseases each year. It is curable with antivirals, but there is no vaccine to prevent it.

Hepatitis D occurs only in those who are infected with hepatitis B. The dual infection of can result in a more serious disease and worse outcome. Hepatitis B vaccines provide protection from hepatitis D infection.

Hepatitis E, like A, is transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. This strain is a common cause of hepatitis outbreaks in developing countries and is increasingly recognized as a cause of disease in developed countries. Vaccines to prevent this infection have been developed but are not widely available.

“Viral hepatitis is a huge global health problem,” said Dr. Chan. “Much needs to be done to combat these infections. And much can be done. Better awareness beginning with this World Hepatitis Day is a very good start.”


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