The Global Hepatitis Report 2017 recently revealed by World Health Organisations (WHO) indicated that an estimated 325 million people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection.

According to the report, a large majority of these people lack access to lifesaving testing and treatment. Hence, millions of people are at risk of slow progression to chronic liver disease, cancer and death.

“Viral hepatitis is now recognised as a major public health challenge that requires an urgent response,” said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.

“Vaccines and medicines to tackle hepatitis exist, and WHO is committed to helping ensure these tools reach all those who need them.”

Hepatitis mortality rate constantly on the rise

In 2015, the death toll resulted from viral hepatitis was 1.34 million people, which is a number comparable to deaths caused by tuberculosis and HIV. However, deaths from hepatitis are constantly on the rise when mortality rates from tuberculosis and HIV have been declining.

In the same year, approximately 1.75 million people were diagnosed with HCV infection, which sums up a total of 71 million people living with hepatitis C. Fortunately, the new infections of HBV are declining following the increased coverage of HBV vaccination among children.

Across the WHO regions, the WHO African Region and WHO Western Pacific Region are the ones that share the greatest burden, with 6.2% and 6.1% of the population infected with hepatitis, respectively. As reported, unsafe injections in the healthcare settings and drug injections are recognised as the most common routes of HCV transmissions.

Limited access to treatment

“Today, 325 million men, women and children are living with a cancer-causing illness, despite the availability of preventative vaccines for hepatitis B and curative treatments for hepatitis C,” said Raquel Peck from the World Hepatitis Alliance.

Until today, there is still no vaccine against HCV infection. Moreover, access to treatment for hepatitis B and C remains relatively low.

The data shows that only 9% of all HBV infections and 20% of all HCV infections were diagnosed in 2015. Worse still, 8% of those diagnosed with HBV infection received treatment, whereas only 7% of those diagnosed with HCV infection were on curative treatment during that year.

As HBV infection requires lifelong treatment, WHO recommends adopting the medication, tenofovir, which is already widely used for treating HIV. On the other hand, the highly effective direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) are said to be able to cure HCV infection within a relatively short time.

Progress to eliminate hepatitis looks promising

"We are still at an early stage of the viral hepatitis response, but the way forward looks promising," said Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of WHO's Department of HIV and the Global Hepatitis Programme.

“More countries are making hepatitis services available for people in need – a diagnostic test costs less than USD1 and the cure for hepatitis C can be below USD200. But the data clearly highlight the urgency with which we must address the remaining gaps in testing and treatment.”

Along with the efforts of some countries such as China, Mongolia and Egypt that are continuing to make progressive steps to improve hepatitis services, WHO aims to indicate baseline statistics on HBV and HCV infections to provide a starting point for hepatitis elimination. MIMS

Read more:
WHO issues measles alert across Europe
Stepping up the fight against infections: Two new vaccines pharmacists should know
FDA warns that direct-acting antivirals for hepatitis C can reactivate hepatitis B