WHO says viral hepatitis deaths “troubling”

New data from 187 countries show that the estimated number of deaths from viral hepatitis increased from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022.

The World Health Organization (WHO) 2024 Global Hepatitis Report, released at the World Hepatitis Summit, found that globally 3,500 people die due to hepatitis B and C infections every day.

“This report paints a troubling picture: despite progress globally in preventing hepatitis infections, deaths are rising because far too few people with hepatitis are being diagnosed and treated,” says WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“WHO is committed to supporting countries to use all the tools at their disposal – at access prices – to save lives and turn this trend around.”

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The condition can be self-limiting, or can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis (late-stage severe scarring) or liver cancer.

Viral hepatitis is caused primarily by 5 main strains of the hepatitis virus, referred to a types A, B, C, D and E. According to WHO “acute infection may occur with limited or no symptoms, or may include symptoms such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.”

The updated WHO estimates indicate that 254 million people lived with hepatitis B and 50 million with hepatitis C in 2022. There was also a slight decrease in new incidences of hepatitis infection with 2.2 million new infections in 2022, down from 2.5 million in 2019.

The report suggests that “hepatitis B and C prevention, including immunisation and safe injections, and the initial impact of expanding hepatitis C cure, have had an impact on reducing incidence”.

However, it also reveals gaps in diagnosis and treatment that must be addressed global targets to treat 80% of people living with chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C by 2030 are to be reached.

Across all regions, only 13% of people living with chronic hepatitis B infection had been diagnosed and only approximately 3% had received antiviral therapy at the end of 2022. In the case of hepatitis C, 36% had been diagnosed and only 20% had received curative treatment.

“Many people remain undiagnosed in many countries, and even when hepatitis is diagnosed, the number of people receiving treatment remains incredibly low,” the report says.

“Although medicines are available at affordable prices, many countries are still not taking full advantage of these treatments because of policy, programmatic and access barriers.”

As a result, many affected populations still face out-of-pocket expenses for viral hepatitis services. Only 60% of reporting countries offer viral hepatitis testing and treatment services free of charge, either entirely or partially, in the public sector.

The report concludes that funding for viral hepatitis, both at a global level and within dedicated country health budgets, it not currently sufficient to meet the needs.

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