Little is known about Hepatitis or viral Hepatitis and the diseases it causes. This is why WHO and partners would like to urge all policy makers, health workers and the public to “Think again” about this silent killer on World Hepatitis Day.
“For years, viral hepatitis has been largely neglected,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General at WHO. “But now we are beginning to see greater awareness and global momentum building to tackle it.”
Many people mistakenly think that hepatitis means viral hepatitis, and that all forms of hepatitis are contagious. Actually, the word hepatitis is a catch-all term that refers to any inflammation of the liver, irritation or swelling of liver cells from any cause.
Viral hepatitis, on the other hand, refers to a group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E and it affects millions of people worldwide, causing acute and chronic liver disease and killing close to 1.4 million people worldwide every year.
Vaccination is one of the strategies that have been used to prevent hepatitis infection. Vaccines exist against hepatitis A and B.Recent progress has also been made with some candidate vaccines being developed against hepatitis C infection.
“Increasing access to curative treatment for hepatitis B and C and expanding hepatitis B vaccination, and other prevention strategies, provide real opportunities for us to save lives and prevent suffering,” says Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of HIV Department, WHO. “We are urging ministries of health to ‘think again’ about hepatitis and develop policies that translate into prevention and life-saving treatments.”
In Lao PDR, when WHO celebrated the World Immunization Week in April this year, the launching ceremony got off to a start in Houphan Province, the province with the lowest Hepatitis B birth coverage in the country, around 15.6% according to a 2011 coverage survey.
WHO Representative to Lao PDR, Dr Juliet Fleischl says “WHO would like to advocate for higher vaccination coverage with Hepatitis B dose at birth and other vaccines under routine schedule specifically in this province and across the country, there is a need for policy makers to strengthen prevention, screening and control of viral hepatitis.”
Her remarks were also echoed by the WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific who said that “Strong political will coupled with sustainable resources for immunization produces dramatic results; all newborn babies have to be vaccinated against hepatitis B within 24 hours of birth, followed by at least two more doses.” This vaccination regimen will allow the Region to achieve its goal of reducing the infection rate of hepatitis B in children to less than 1% by 2017.
WHO has been intensifying its support to countries to expand comprehensive hepatitis prevention and treatment programmes. New guidelines for the prevention and management of hepatitis B are currently being developed and a new manual for tackling outbreaks of hepatitis E will be released on World Hepatitis Day.
In April this year, WHO released new guidelines for the screening, care and treatment of people with hepatitis C infection. This was followed by the World Health Assembly delegates from 194 Member States adopting a resolution to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of viral hepatitis in May.
Hepatitis infection can be prevented by providing safe food and water (hepatitis A and E), vaccines (hepatitis A and B), screening of blood donations and provision of sterile injecting equipment and assuring infection control (hepatitis B and C).
WHO currently works with a broad range of stakeholders, including affected populations, community networks, clinicians, national hepatitis programmes, service providers and donors to implement these guidelines on viral hepatitis, to expand prevention efforts and to make treatment affordable and accessible to those in need.
Plans are being developed in a number of low- and middle-income countries to rapidly expand access to both hepatitis B and C treatment, while also ensuring that there is adequate investment in proven hepatitis prevention interventions, including hepatitis vaccination programmes, harm reduction for drug users and blood and injection safety.
The first step for us all is to rethink viral hepatitis and get screened. Hepatitis: Think Again.