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Global Strategy Aims to Reduce Infections, Deaths From Viral Hepatitis

FILE - A patient with hepatitis is treated at a hospital in El Sereif village, North Darfur, Sudan, May 13, 2013.
FILE - A patient with hepatitis is treated at a hospital in El Sereif village, North Darfur, Sudan, May 13, 2013.

The World Health Organization says increasing prevention and treatment programs for Hepatitis B and C could save millions of lives by 2030. The WHO says affordable tools are available to treat the viral diseases, which remain largely ignored.

Globally, an estimated 400 million people are infected with Hepatitis B and C. That is more than 10 times the number of people infected with HIV. Despite that, the WHO says about 1.45 million people die each year from the disease.

The WHO calls Hepatitis a silent killer because of a lack of awareness. As a consequence, people do not get tested or treated for the preventable disease, which is largely prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Hepatitis B and C infections are transmitted through contaminated blood, as well as through dirty needles among people who inject drugs. Over time, the infection damages the liver and people die from cirrhosis or cancer.

The head of the WHO’s global hepatitis program, Stefan Wiktor, says good tools are available to prevent and treat the needless deaths. He tells VOA a great vaccine exists for Hepatitis B, which can be transmitted from an infected mother to her newborn child.

“It is part of the childhood immunization schedule," said Wiktor. "More than 82 percent of children in the world get it. So, they are protected from Hepatitis B. So, we have seen tremendous results in many countries, especially in Asia.”

Although a dose of the vaccine only costs 17 cents, Wiktor says it is logistically more difficult for people in low-income countries in Africa to access the vaccine, so fewer children become inoculated. He says governments must make a greater effort to make the vaccines available.

A new class of medicines developed in 2013 has revolutionized the treatment for people with Hepatitis C, 90 percent of whom can be cured. The price of the drug is $84,000 in rich countries; but, prices have dropped dramatically, to about $200 a treatment, in countries that have access to generic drugs. Most generics are being produced in India.

Governments at this year’s World Health Assembly adopted the first ever Global Health Strategy to reduce new viral hepatitis infections by 90 percent and the number of deaths by 65 percent by 2030. Wiktor says 7 million deaths could be prevented by 2030.