Thursday, July 25, 2013

Governments all over the world urged to act against five hepatitis viruses that cause severe liver infections

On World Hepatitis Day (28 July), the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging governments to act against the five hepatitis viruses that can cause severe liver infections and lead to 1.4 million deaths every year.  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, in addition to loss of income and high medical expenses for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

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.  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.

This year, in the run up to World Hepatitis Day, the Organization is releasing its first-ever country hepatitis survey, covering 126 countries. 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 findings show that 37% 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%) 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 findings underline the important work that is being done by governments to halt hepatitis through the implementation of WHO recommended policies and actions.

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. Reinforcing that call for action, WHO has been collaborating closely with countries and partners to build a strong global response.  As a result, the new report notes, 38% of countries observe World Hepatitis Day (an annual event that began in 2010) with even more countries expected to mark the day this year.


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