New hepatitis data highlight need for urgent global response: WHO

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UNITED NATIONS, April 22 (APP): An estimated 325 million
people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV)
or hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, and many of these individuals
lack access to life-saving testing and treatment, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
“Viral hepatitis is now recognized as a major public health
challenge that requires an urgent response,” Dr. Margaret Chan,
WHO Director-General, said. “Vaccines and medicines to tackle
hepatitis exist, and WHO is committed to helping ensure these
tools reach all those who need them.”
Viral hepatitis took the lives of 1.34 million people in
2015, a toll comparable to deaths caused by tuberculosis (TB)
and HIV. However, while TB- and HIV-related deaths have been
declining, deaths from hepatitis are on the rise.
WHO noted HBV and HCV epidemics in regions and “hotspots”
across the world, and it said that treatment access is low.
There is no HCV vaccine as yet, and access to treatment for HBV
and HCV is low.
The WHO Global Hepatitis Report, 2017 also notes progress
in some countries, such as China achieving 96% coverage for
the timely birth dose of HBV vaccines and Mongolia improving
uptake of hepatitis treatment by including HBV and HCV drugs
in its National Health Insurance scheme.
The new report “aims to provide a starting point for
hepatitis elimination by indicating baseline statistics
on HBV and HCV infections, including mortality, and coverage
levels of key interventions,” WHO said.
The report also revealed that increased coverage of HBV
vaccinations among children have contributed substantially to
preventing deaths from that virus.
Globally, 84 per cent of children born in 2015 received the
three recommended doses of HBV vaccine. However, an estimated
257 million people, mostly adults born before the introduction
of the HBV vaccine, were living with chronic HBV infection in
2015. There is also currently no vaccine against HCV, and access
to treatment for both HBV and HCV is low.
HBV infection requires lifelong treatment, and Hepatitis C
can be cured within a relatively short time using the correct
medicines, making the need for testing and treatment all the
more important.
“We are still at an early stage of the viral hepatitis
response, but the way forward looks promising,” Gottfried
Hirnschall, Director of WHO’s Department of HIV and the
Global Hepatitis Programme, said, adding: “More countries
are making hepatitis services available for people in need
– a diagnostic test costs less than $1 and the cure for HCV
can be below $200.”
Findings have also revealed that Hepatitis B levels vary
across the planet. WHO’s Western Pacific Region (115 million
people) and its African Region (60 million people) have the
highest number of such patients.
These roughly equate to 6.2 per cent and 6.1 per cent of
their respective total populations.
Similarly, HCV prevalence by regions varies from about
seven million (in WHO Americas Region) to 15 million (in
the UN agency’s Eastern Mediterranean Region).
The report has also shown that that despite challenges,
some countries have made strides in scaling-up hepatitis
services.
China, for instance, achieved a high coverage of nearly
96 per cent for the timely birth dose of HBV vaccines, and
reached the Hepatitis B control goal of less than one per
cent prevalence in children under the age of five in 2015.
Mongolia, too, has improved the uptake of hepatitis
treatment by including HBV and HCV medicines in its National
Health Insurance Scheme, which covers 98 per cent of its
population.
Similarly, generic competition among medicines has also
contributed substantially, in Egypt, for example, the price
of a 3-month cure for Hepatitis C has reduced to less than
$200 (in 2016) from $900 (in 2015) also, in Pakistan, the
same course currently costs as little as $100.