The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging governments to act against the five hepatitis viruses that can cause severe liver infections and lead to death, ahead of World Hepatitis Day that falls on July 28.
It is estimated that 1.4 million people die every year from the hepatitis virus.
Some of these hepatitis viruses, most notably types B and C, could also lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses such as liver cancer and cirrhosis, in addition to loss of income and high medical expenses for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
A statement issued by the WHO and copied to the Ghana News Agency on Wednesday, said “mobile Viral hepatitis is referred to as a ‘silent epidemic’ because most persons do not realize that they are infected and, over decades, slowly progress to liver disease.‘’
It said many countries were only now realizing the magnitude of the disease burden and devising ways to address it.
The statement cited Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security and the Environment as saying “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.”
It said this year, in the run up to World Hepatitis Day, the WHO is carrying out its first-ever country hepatitis survey, covering 126 countries.
The statement said The WHO Global policy report on the prevention and control or viral hepatitis in WHO member states,” identifies successes as well as gaps at country level in the implementation of four priority areas.
“The priority areas are raising awareness, evidence-based data for action, prevention of transmission, and screening, care and treatment.
The statement said the findings show that 37 per cent of the countries have national strategies for viral hepatitis, and more work is needed in treating hepatitis.
Dr Sylvie Briand, Director, Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases at WHO said: “It also highlights that while most of the countries (82 per cent) 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, and doing so will offset the heavy economic costs of treating and hospitalizing patients in future”.
The new report notes that, 38 per cent of countries observe World Hepatitis Day (an annual event that began in 2010) with even more countries expected to mark the day this year.
“In addition to collaborating closely with countries, WHO has been working on developing networks and mechanisms that can deliver results,” the statement said.
It said WHO was exploring with international funding agencies avenues that could allow hepatitis to be included in their current programme of activities.
The statement said last month, WHO launched the Global Hepatitis Network; one of its aims was to support countries with planning and implementation of viral hepatitis plans and programmes.
”New more effective medicines to prevent the progression of chronic hepatitis B and C are in the pipeline. 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,” said Dr Stefan Wiktor, Team lead of WHO’s Global Hepatitis Programme.
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.