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Summit Focuses on 400 Million with Hepatitis

FILE - Five-year-old child receives Hepatitis A vaccine at the People's Hospital of Sixian county, China's Anhui province.
FILE - Five-year-old child receives Hepatitis A vaccine at the People's Hospital of Sixian county, China's Anhui province.

The first-ever World Hepatitis Summit kicked off today in Glasgow, Scotland, where health officials are urging countries to develop national hepatitis treatment and prevention programs.

While an estimated 400 million people worldwide are infected with the viral disease, which kills nearly 1.5 million people per year, the worst affected regions are Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says most people living with the chronic disease do not even know they’re infected, although vaccine and treatments are now available.

“We really need governments, civil society, private companies to make people aware," said Dr. Stefan Wiktor, the team leader of the WHO's Global Hepatitis Program, who attended the conference.

He says the approach should be similar to that taken for HIV/AIDS, to which Hepatitis shows similar roots of transmission. Also like HIV, hepatitis carries a lot of social stigma and, even if untreated, does not kill right away, but can take decades to destroy the liver.

There are five different hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D and E. All cause inflammation of the liver, but two strains, B and C, cause most deaths and are responsible for 80 percent of all liver cancer fatalities.

According to Wiktor, the strains have different routes of transmission. A and C are spread through contaminated food and water, while B, C and D are transmitted through contaminated blood — though only D only affects people who are already infected with B.

B can also be transmitted through sex.

“Luckily, we have ways to prevent all of them," Wiktor said. "There’s a great vaccine for Hepatitis B that is effective for life. And there are treatments for both B and C. So there are now in hand means of preventing and treating both infections. So, really, this is a time to act. And that’s really the point of this summit.”

Not long ago, no treatment was available for Hepatitis C to prevent fatal liver damage.

“One of the most remarkable advances in the development of medicines is the development of treatment for Hepatitis C," Wiktor said. "Until recently, it was very difficult to cure. It required weekly injections and only half the people who started the medicines were cured. Now, the medicines are about 12 weeks of treatment. One pill a day and almost everyone is cured. And cured means the virus is gone from their body.”

But he said although a vaccine and treatments are available, not everyone in need can get them.

“The problem has been these medicines are very expensive," he said. "In the U.S., for example, they cost more than $100,000 to treat one person just for the medicines. Luckily, the lower-income countries have been able to get these same medicines at a much lower price.

"But a lot more has to happen to make these drugs affordable, and we estimate that it’s a big problem," he added. "There are about 240 million people with chronic Hepatitis B and between 130 and 150 million for Hepatitis C."

The World Hepatitis Summit is co-sponsored by the WHO and the World Hepatitis Alliance. It’s expected to become annual event.