New Delhi: Millions of people in WHO’s South-East Asia Region, which includes India, are infected with viral hepatitis without knowing and do not receive treatment, the global health body, and asserted that urgent action is needed to find, test and treat them.
On the eve of World Hepatitis Day, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said that it is estimated that less than one in 10 people infected with hepatitis, both worldwide and in the region, know whether they are affected by the condition, while less than 10 per cent of those who do know to receive appropriate treatment.
“This lack of awareness and treatment lead to progressive liver damage and can cause life-threatening conditions such as fibrosis and liver cancer, resulting in an estimated 4,10,000 deaths in the region every year.
“It also allows viral hepatitis to spread. Region-wide, an estimated 40 million people live with chronic hepatitis B while an estimated 10 million live with chronic hepatitis C,” she said.
WHO’s South-East Asia Region comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste.
She said urgent action is needed to find, test and treat the missing millions suffering from viral hepatitis and achieve the time-bound targets of WHO South-East Asia’s Regional Action Plan.
“That includes ensuring at least 50 per cent of the infected people know their status and at least 75 per cent of those diagnosed with the disease are provided treatment by 2020.
“Ninety per cent or more newborns should, meanwhile, receive the hepatitis B vaccine’s birth dose, while at least 95 per cent of children should complete the vaccine’s three-dose schedule. Increased injection safety in health facilities is likewise critical,” Singh said.
She asserted that to achieve these outcomes and eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030, as envisaged in WHO’s Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis, greater awareness among high-risk groups and the public, in general, is the key.
Singh said health authorities in the region should deploy clear messaging tactics regarding signs and symptoms of hepatitis so that people can get tested and seek treatment and also how its spread can be prevented.
“They should also build health workers’ capacity at all levels to identify symptoms and test for the disease where appropriate,” she said, adding to make that happen, health workers must have better access to quality point-of-care diagnostics and laboratory testing.
“All testing kits, for example, should be affordable and quality assured. Results should be communicated confidentially and without prejudice or stigma. Importantly, testing should be integrated with HIV, antenatal care, cancer screening and treatment services. It should also be done under a clear set of national guidelines,” Singh said.
Asserting that access to effective and affordable treatment is vital for individuals who test positive for hepatitis B or C, she said, “While treatment for hepatitis B has existed for some time, directly-acting antiviral drugs can now cure hepatitis C in up to 95 per cent of cases.”
“Notably, the cost of these treatments has dramatically reduced, while most are now registered and licensed in each of the region’s countries. To reduce costs further, member states should make full use of flexibilities in global trade agreements,” Singh said.
“The stakes are high and the burden immense. Across the South-East Asia Region, urgent action is needed to counter viral hepatitis and save a life,” she added.