By Tomi Jaiyeola, Humanitas Global
Viral hepatitis, a potentially fatal disease, is the 8th leading cause of death worldwide, killing the same amount of people each year as HIV/AIDS – 1.5 million.
Today, World Hepatitis Day is being celebrated not only to highlight the achievements, but to increase awareness about viral hepatitis, prevention programs, access to treatments and to urge governments to act. This year’s theme, “Think Again,” calls on people to stop neglecting this disease and start being more conscious of it.
One step in the right direction occurred at the World Health Assembly in May, where a resolution was signed by 194 countries to improve global response to the prevention and treatment of viral hepatitis. The resolution also addressed the expansion of hepatitis A and B vaccination programs; and the feasibility of eradicating hepatitis B and C. Another challenge that was recognized was limited access of treatments to low and middle-income countries; an issue, the WHO and other stakeholders are already developing plans to address.
Those most susceptible to hepatitis B and C virus are those who are infected with HIV. These are blood-borne viruses that can be transmitted through sexual contacts and unclean injection activities. According to the WHO, as many as four to five million people are estimated to be infected with both HIV and hepatitis B; and co-infection of HIV and hepatitis C is about 50%–90% among HIV-infected injection drug users. Now, with HIV treatment extending the lives of those with the virus, there is also the concern about the viral hepatitis which causes liver damage. This means that both viruses would have to be treated at the same time.
There are antiviral drugs to treat both hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Nevertheless, the best prevention of hepatitis B is through vaccinations. Although, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, there has been some progress made its treatment. A new study came out last week that suggests that HIV antiretroviral drug can also help suppress hepatitis C for patients infected with both viruses.
In addition to recommending testing for those at risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that those born from 1945-1965 should get a blood test for hepatitis C because they are five times more likely to have the virus.
There is a great deal of momentum around hepatitis. We – the global community – need to use World Hepatitis Day to build on this momentum and get everyone, from policy makers to researchers to public health specialists, to “think again” about viral hepatitis.