FILE - Mexican Health Ministry representatives give migrants free shots for the flu, hepatitis B, tetanus, and preventible children's diseases at the Barretal shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, Dec. 6, 2018.
FILE - Mexican Health Ministry representatives give migrants free shots for the flu, hepatitis B, tetanus, and preventible children's diseases at the Barretal shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, Dec. 6, 2018.

GENEVA - In advance of World Hepatitis Day on Sunday (July 28), the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging countries to invest in affordable treatments that could reduce the number of infections and save millions of lives.

Hepatitis B and C are viral infections transmitted through contact with blood. Those two viruses cause cirrhosis and liver cancer and constitute about 96 percent of all hepatitis-related deaths.

The World Health Organization says hepatitis B and C infections affect about 325 million people globally and kill about 1.4 million every year. WHO's hepatitis team leader, Marc Bulterys said that makes hepatitis the second most lethal infectious disease just behind tuberculosis.

"The number of deaths from hepatitis has been increasing over the past two decades," he added. "What is worse, hepatitis has been a silent killer.  Of the 257 million people that we estimate are living with hepatitis B infection, only about one in 10 has been diagnosed and only approximately 4.5 million people are on treatment." 

Bulterys said of the 71 million people living with chronic hepatitis C, only one in five has been diagnosed and 5 million treated.  

The WHO study finds hepatitis could be eliminated as a public health threat in 67 low-and middle-income countries by 2030 for a cost of $6 billion a year or a total of nearly $60 billion. These countries account for 75 percent of the world's population.  The WHO says new hepatitis infections would be reduced by 90 percent and deaths by 65 percent.  

When calculated on an individual basis, Bulterys said the cost of treatment is very cheap. He says the availability of generic drugs is making it possible. He says a three-month course of treatment for hepatitis C costs about $40.00 in India, Pakistan and Egypt, which produce their own generics.

Bulterys  told VOA the world's other poorer countries can buy the drugs for $89.00 through the U.N. Development Program and Gavi, a global vaccine alliance. However, he said the cost remains high in richer countries.

"So, a cure that in the United States just as little as two years ago cost $84,000, $1,000 a tablet for the three-month cure is now available for just $89 in these low-and middle-income countries that have access to generics," he said. 

He added that the price has come down in the U.S. and people now can purchase Hepatitis C pills for about $18,000 under the U.S. Medicaid program in California. 

As for Hepatitis B, he noted that a year of treatment for that viral disease costs less than $30.00 everywhere.  That, he explained is because the patent on these drugs expired last year.