Measures announced to fight hepatitis “epidemic”
Ahead of World Hepatitis Day tomorrow (July 28th), the World Health Organization have announced measures to fight the “hidden epidemic” of hepatitis, which kills over one million people a year.
Figures suggest that approximately 500 million people worldwide are living with either hepatitis B or hepatitis C – around 1 in 12 people. Although somewhat less publicised than other diseases, statistics suggest that every year, 1.5 million people worldwide die from either hepatitis B or C faster than they would from HIV/AIDS.
The virus, which settles in the liver causing inflammation, often goes unnoticed in patients for years and even decades. If left untreated and unmanaged, it can lead to advanced liver scarring (cirrhosis) and other complications, including liver cancer or liver failure.
Dr Sylvie Briand, from the World Health Organisation’s Pandemic and Epidemic Disease Department, said: “The vast majority of people infected with hepatitis are unaware, undiagnosed and untreated. Only by increasing awareness of the different forms of hepatitis, and how they can be prevented and treated, can we take the first step towards full control of the disease and save thousands of lives.”
The virus exists in five forms: A, B, C, D and E, but the World Health Organisation are particularly keen to target types B and C, since recent studies have suggested a high proportion of people only become aware of their infection when they are chronically ill, which can sometimes be decades after infection. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight loss, nausea, flu-like symptoms, problems concentrating, abdominal pain and jaundice – although many people experience no symptoms at all, as often it is only when the liver becomes seriously damaged that symptoms occur and people report to their doctor.
Although the disease was only discovered in 1989, vaccines are currently available for all virus types except C – although this is being addressed, with a new generation of anti-viral treatments becoming available to treat hepatitis C and prevent other types developing into cirrhosis and cancer.
Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, campaigners are launching a multi-pronged action plan in an attempt to eradicate the virus. The World Health Organisation are calling on governments to raise awareness, transform research into policy and action, and prevent transmission by effective screening, care and treatment. On an individual level, the public are being advised that they can protect themselves by ensuring they wash their hands, follow food safety practices, practice safe sex and avoid injecting drugs with infected needles. People are advised to exercise extra caution when located in areas, particularly countries in south Asia, where the virus is endemic and unsterilised medical and dental equipment is commonly used.
Helen Harris, a hepatitis expert at the Health Protection Agency, concludes: “Many people who are chronically infected with the virus are unaware of their infection. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to monitor the true burden of infection to help focus public health action on getting these people diagnosed and into treatment. We must redouble our efforts and continue to develop new schemes to raise awareness in at-risk communities and ensure that individuals who may have been exposed to the virus are tested, diagnosed and treated early, before they become seriously ill.
It’s very encouraging that new drugs are now available that can help clear the most difficult-to-treat strain of the virus in most people. It’s important that hepatitis C provision continues to be a priority [...] particularly for those marginalised groups of society who are most affected by the epidemic.”
Further information about hepatitis and World Hepatitis day is available at www.worldhepatitisalliance.org
Source – AFP 26 July 12