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Millions of people unknowingly infected with hepatitis – WHO

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised an alarm over millions of people who have viral hepatitis but are unaware or unable to receive treatment.

The global health agency, while raising the alarm on the World Hepatitis Day, marked on Saturday, said that action was needed to find, test and treat millions of people unknowingly infected with viral hepatitis.

According to WHO, viral hepatitis B and C are major health challenges, affecting 325 million people globally, and they are the root causes of liver cancer, leading to 1.34 million deaths every year.

Hepatitis B and C are chronic infections that may not show symptoms for a long period, sometimes years or decades, and at least 60 per cent of liver cancer cases are due to late testing and treatment of viral hepatitis B and C.

Low coverage of testing and treatment is the most important gap to be addressed in order to achieve the global elimination goals by 2030, and WHO focused on the theme: “Test. Treat. Hepatitis” for World Hepatitis Day 2018 events.

World Hepatitis Day focuses on raising awareness of the global burden of viral hepatitis as a major health problem in need of an urgent international response.

WHO and partners are calling on countries to urgently increase hepatitis testing and treatment services in order to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030.

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, said in a statement: “We have a clear vision for elimination, and we have the tools to do it. But we must accelerate progress to achieve our goal of eliminating hepatitis by 2030.”

According to WHO, hepatitis B is a viral infection transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person, which attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease.

WHO said estimated 257 million people are living with hepatitis B virus infection, and in 2015, hepatitis B resulted in 887,000 annual deaths, mostly from complications – including cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.

A vaccine against hepatitis B has been available since 1982, which is 95 per cent effective in preventing infection and the development of chronic disease and liver cancer, the global health agency said.

Similarly, hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus, which can cause both acute and chronic hepatitis, ranging in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness, according to WHO.

This may happen through injection drug use, unsafe injection practices, unsafe health care, and the transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products.

WHO estimates that globally, 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C infection, and a significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Approximately 399,000 people die each year from hepatitis C, mostly from cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, and there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, however research in this area is ongoing.

Antiviral medicines can cure more than 95 per cent of persons with hepatitis C infection, thereby reducing the risk of death from liver cancer and cirrhosis, but access to diagnosis and treatment is low.

Marking World Hepatitis Day, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) called on people to take action to find the “missing millions,” including intravenous drug users and people in prison.

“Every second person who injects drugs is living with hepatitis C,” said Yury Fedotov, UNODC Executive Director, indicating that women in this category have a 38 per cent higher risk of contracting hepatitis C than men.

“The prevalence of hepatitis B infection among people who inject drugs is 7.5 per cent,” he added.

Due to contaminated equipment and unsafe injection of drugs, along with other risk factors such as unsafe tattooing and skin piercing, a 2016 global review indicated that, of the estimated 10.4 million people incarcerated worldwide, 15.1 per cent have hepatitis C and 4.8 per cent have chronic hepatitis B. (NAN)

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