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Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, UN urges greater efforts to fight ‘silent epidemic’

Testing for hepatitis in Togo.
IRIN/Isidore Akollor
Testing for hepatitis in Togo.

Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, UN urges greater efforts to fight ‘silent epidemic’

Only one-third of the world’s countries have national strategies for viral hepatitis, the United Nations health agency today said urging Governments to scale up measures to tackle this ‘silent epidemic,’ in particular the five types that, over time, cause chronic and debilitating illnesses.

“The fact that many hepatitis B and C infections are silent, causing no symptoms until there is severe damage to the liver, points to the urgent need for universal access to immunization, screening, diagnosis and antiviral therapy,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director-General for Health Security and the Environment, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, said ahead of World Hepatitis Day.

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. These five types are of greatest concern, WHO said, because of the burden of illness and death they cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread. These severe infections lead to 1.4 million deaths every year.

Hepatitis A and E are food and water borne infections, while Hepatitis B, C, and D are spread by infected body fluids including blood, by sexual contact, mother-to-child transmission during birth, or by contaminated medical equipment.

The World Health Assembly – the decision-making body of WHO – designated 28 July as World Hepatitis Day. The Day serves to promote greater understanding of hepatitis as a global public health problem and to stimulate the strengthening of preventive and control measures against infection in countries throughout the world.

Thirty-seven per cent of countries surveyed have national strategies for viral hepatitis, and more work is needed in treating hepatitis, the UN agency announced releasing its first-ever country hepatitis survey. Covering 126 countries, the Global policy report on the prevention and control of viral hepatitis in WHO member States identifies successes as well as gaps at country level in the implementation of four priority areas: raising awareness, evidence-based data for action, prevention of transmission, and screening, care and treatment.

The findings show that while 82 per cent of the countries have established hepatitis surveillance programmes, only half of them include the monitoring of chronic hepatitis B and C, which are responsible for most severe illnesses and deaths.

“Many of the measures needed to prevent the spread of viral hepatitis disease can be put in place right now, and doing so will offset the heavy economic costs of treating and hospitalizing patients in future,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases at WHO.

“The findings underline the important work that is being done by Governments to halt hepatitis through the implementation of WHO recommended policies and actions,” Dr. Briand added.

In addition, WHO has been working on developing networks and is exploring with international funding agencies avenues that could allow hepatitis to be included in their current programme of activities, the UN agency said in its statement.

In June 2013, WHO launched the Global Hepatitis Network, and one of its aims is to support countries with planning and implementation of viral hepatitis plans and programmes.

WHO is currently developing new hepatitis C screening, care and treatment guidelines, which will provide recommendations on seven key areas such as testing approaches; behavioural interventions (alcohol reduction); non-invasive assessment of liver fibrosis; and the selection of hepatitis C drug combinations.

”New, more effective medicines to prevent the progression of chronic hepatitis B and C are in the pipeline,” said Dr. Stefan Wiktor, team lead in WHO’s Global Hepatitis Programme. “However, these will be expensive and therapy will require monitoring with sophisticated laboratory tests. To cure and reduce the spread of these viruses, medicines must become more accessible.”