WHO projects viral hepatitis deaths to exceed HIV, TB, malaria combined by 2040

THE World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that viral hepatitis could kill more people than malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV combined by 2040 if the current infection rate continues.

WHO, in a statement issued on Friday, July 28, to mark the World Hepatitis Day, called for scaled up testing and treatment for viral hepatitis.

Hepatitis, according to WHO, causes liver damage and cancer, killing over a million people annually. Of the 5 types of hepatitis infections, hepatitis B and C cause most of the disease and deaths.

Viral hepatitis infection is mostly silent, with symptoms only appearing once the disease is advanced. Although there are many different types of hepatitis viruses (A to E), hepatitis B and C are the most concerning and cause nearly 8000 new infections every day, which are mostly going undetected.

The statement which was themed, ‘One life, one liver’, revealed that only 21 per cent of the people living with hepatitis C are diagnosed and only 13 per cent have received curative treatment despite the disease being curable. 

Similarly, only 10 per cent of people living with chronic hepatitis B are diagnosed, and only 2 per cent of those infected are receiving life-saving medicine.

WHO, while explaining the importance of protecting the liver against the infection, highlighted that the liver silently performs over 500 vital functions every single day to keep people alive.

“Viral hepatitis could kill more people than malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV combined by 2040 if current infection trends continue.

“Hepatitis causes liver damage and cancer and kills over a million people annually. Of the 5 types of hepatitis infections, hepatitis B and C cause most of the disease and deaths. Hepatitis C can be cured; however, only 21% of people living with hepatitis C infection are diagnosed and only 13% have received curative treatment.

“Just 10 per cent of people living with chronic hepatitis B are diagnosed, and only 2per cent of those infected are receiving the lifesaving medicine.”

The Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in the statement, said “Millions of people are living with undiagnosed and untreated hepatitis worldwide, even though we have better tools than ever to prevent, diagnose and treat it.”

WHO reassured of its commitment to supporting countries to expand the use of those tools, including increasingly cost-effective curative medication, to save lives and end hepatitis.

Pregnant women, babies must have access to treatment, vaccines

To combat viral hepatitis, WHO called on global communities to ensure access to treatment for all pregnant women and vaccines for babies at birth.

“To reduce new infections and deaths from hepatitis B and C, countries must: ensure access to treatment for all pregnant women living with hepatitis B, provide hepatitis B vaccines for their babies at birth, diagnose 90% of people living with hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C, and provide treatment to 80% of all people diagnosed with hepatitis. They must also act to ensure optimal blood transfusion, safe injections and harm reduction.”

According to WHO, the reduction of hepatitis B infections in children through vaccination is a key intervention to limit viral hepatitis infections overall, adding that the target for hepatitis B incidence is the only Sustainable Development Goal health target that was met in 2020 and is on track for 2030.

“However, many countries in Africa do not have access to the birth dose hepatitis B vaccines. Gavi’s recent restart of its Vaccine Investment Strategy 2018 – which includes the birth dose hepatitis B vaccine – will jumpstart newborn vaccination programs in West and Central Africa, where mother-to-child hepatitis B transmission rates remain very high. 

“To help eliminate mother-to-child transmission, WHO recommends that all pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B during their pregnancy. If positive, they should receive treatment and vaccines should be provided to their newborns. However, a new WHO report shows that of the 64 countries with a policy, only 32 countries reported implementing activities to screen for and manage hepatitis B in antenatal clinics.”

According to WHO, only 80 per cent of the 103 countries that reported the infections have policies to screen and manage hepatitis B in HIV clinics, with 65 per cent doing the same for hepatitis C. 

It also stated that increasing hepatitis testing and treatment within HIV programmes will protect people living with HIV from developing liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.




    The organisation also bemoaned the slow progress in the number of people accessing hepatitis C curative treatment after years of increasing treatment rates.

    It further advocated taking advantage of price reductions in medication to reaccelerate progress in expanding treatment. 

    “A 12-week course of medication to cure hepatitis C now costs 60 US dollars for low-income countries, down from the original costs of more than 90 000 US dollars when first introduced in high-income countries. Treatment for hepatitis B costs less than 30 US dollars per year ($2.4 US dollars per month).

    “For people who want to maintain liver health, WHO recommends hepatitis testing, treatment if diagnosed, and vaccination against hepatitis B. Reducing alcohol consumption, achieving a healthy weight, and managing diabetes or hypertension also benefit liver health,” WHO stated.

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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