On World Hepatitis Day, on Sunday, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging Caribbean and other governments to act against the five hepatitis viruses that can cause severe liver infections and lead to 1.4 million deaths every year.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based WHO said some of these hepatitis viruses, most notably types B and C, can also lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses, such as liver cancer and cirrhosis.
The viruses can result in the loss of income and high medical expenses for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the WHO said.
It said 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.
The WHO said many countries are only now realizing the magnitude of the disease burden and devising ways to address it.
“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,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security and the Environment.
“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,” he added.
This year, in the run-up to World Hepatitis Day, the WHO has released its first-ever country hepatitis survey, covering 126 countries.
The WHO “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.
The priority areas are raising awareness, evidence-based data for action, prevention of transmission, and screening, care and treatment.
The findings show that 37 percent of the countries have national strategies for viral hepatitis, and more work is needed in treating hepatitis.
It also highlights that while most of the countries (82 percent) have established hepatitis surveillance programs, 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, 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,” she added.
The WHO said the challenges posed by hepatitis were formally acknowledged by the World Health Assembly in 2010, when it adopted its first resolution on viral hepatitis, and called for a comprehensive approach to prevention and control.
“This has promoted a new era of awareness with more governments proactively working to address the disease,” the WHO said.
Reinforcing that call for action, the WHO said it has been collaborating closely with countries and partners to build a strong global response.
As a result, the new report notes, 38 percent 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, the WHO said it has been working on developing networks and mechanisms that can deliver results.
The organization said it is exploring with international funding agencies avenues that could allow hepatitis to be included in their current program of activities.
In June 2013, the WHO launched the Global Hepatitis Network. One of its aims is to support countries with planning and implementation of viral hepatitis plans and programs.
The WHO is currently developing new hepatitis C screening, care and treatment guidelines, which will provide recommendations on seven key areas, such as testing approaches; behavioral 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 of WHO’s Global Hepatitis Program.
“However, these will be expensive, and therapy will require monitoring with sophisticated laboratory tests,” he added. “To cure and reduce the spread of these viruses, medicines must become more accessible.”