On the occasion of World Hepatitis Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging policy makers, healthcare providers, and leaders from political and civil society, both in the South-East Asia Region and globally, to expedite hepatitis testing and treatment. This year’s theme, “One life, one liver,” emphasizes the importance of recognizing that every individual worldwide has just one life and one liver, highlighting the need for timely action.
Globally, an estimated 354 million people are living with chronic hepatitis B and C, and each year, approximately 1.1 million lose their lives due to hepatitis-related complications, such as liver cirrhosis and cancer. Tragically, a large number of those affected are unaware of their hepatitis status, contributing to its infamous label as the “silent killer.” However, there is hope for prevention through safe and effective vaccines for hepatitis B and management of chronic hepatitis B with antiviral drugs, and in most cases, hepatitis C can be cured. Achieving these outcomes and eliminating hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal target, necessitates widespread access to prompt and accurate testing.
The South-East Asia Region carries around 20% of the global hepatitis mortality burden, with an estimated 81% of hepatitis-related deaths in the region attributed to hepatitis B and C. Approximately 60 million individuals suffer from chronic hepatitis B, and about 10.5 million live with chronic hepatitis C in this region. Shockingly, every year, the region witnesses nearly half a million new hepatitis B and C infections, averaging to one new infection every minute.
While progress has been made in some areas, such as high vaccine coverage for hepatitis B in nine countries and the provision of the hepatitis B vaccine birth dose in eight countries, timely access to testing and treatment for hepatitis B and C still lags behind. Only a small fraction of eligible individuals know their status and have access to treatment. For instance, merely 10.5% of eligible hepatitis B patients know their status, and only 4.5% are receiving treatment. Similarly, for hepatitis C, just 6.9% of those eligible for treatment are aware of their status, and only 23% have access to treatment.
To accelerate the availability of hepatitis testing and treatment throughout the entire South-East Asia Region, WHO proposes action in several key areas. Firstly, policy makers should include hepatitis testing and treatment as part of essential primary healthcare services, making it accessible within communities, close to where people live and work, and ensuring its inclusion under universal health coverage.
Secondly, leaders in health and community spheres should focus on reaching, empowering, and engaging vulnerable and high-risk communities, along with people from all walks of life, drawing inspiration from the successful initiatives for HIV and adopting the approach of “Nothing for us, without us.”
Thirdly, policy makers and healthcare providers, including private sector entities, should actively integrate services for hepatitis, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), aligning with the Region’s integrated Action Plan for Viral Hepatitis, HIV, and STIs 2022-2030. This approach aims to increase efficiency and reduce gaps and fragmentation in service delivery.
Lastly, countries should consider realigning their funding priorities for the three diseases, hepatitis, HIV, and STIs, to maximize impact based on current disease burdens.
The set targets are indeed ambitious, but WHO believes they are achievable. By 2030, the goal is to achieve a 90% reduction in new chronic hepatitis infections and a 65% reduction in hepatitis-related mortality, ultimately eliminating hepatitis as a public health threat. On World Hepatitis Day, WHO reaffirms its commitment to support all countries in the Region in their efforts to achieve rapid, strategic, and equitable progress, leading to healthier livers and healthier lives.