Viral hepatitis is a disease of the liver that is preventable, treatable and curable in most cases. It is a disease where elimination can and must be achieved.
On this World Hepatitis Day, the World Health Organisation is highlighting the need to bring hepatitis care closer to the people. This means making hepatitis care available, affordable and accessible to one and all who need it without discrimination.
This is a crucial component in the quest towards elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. Elimination would translate to 90% reduction in incidence and 65% reduction in mortality by 2030, compared with the corresponding figures of 2015.
The action against hepatitis cannot wait any longer. Firstly, it is the only communicable disease where mortality is showing an increasing trend. Globally, approximately 354 million people are suffering from hepatitis B and C and one person is dying every 30 seconds due to its complications.
South-East Asia has 20% of the global morbidity burden of hepatitis. An estimated 218,000 people died due to hepatitis in the Region in 2019. About 95% of all hepatitis-related deaths are due to cirrhosis and liver cancers caused by the hepatitis B and C virus.
Second, viral hepatis is a disease that is completely preventable. Clean food and good personal hygiene, along with access to safe water and sanitation, can protect us from hepatitis A and E. Measures to prevent hepatitis B and C need to focus on full coverage with hepatitis B immunisation including a birth dose, as well as access to safe blood, safe sex and safe needle usage.
Third, a world free of hepatitis is practical and feasible, and it is one of the few infectious diseases the elimination of which is tangible. We do have the tools to diagnose, treat and prevent chronic viral hepatitis, and thereby eliminate viral hepatitis.
Safe and effective vaccines exist to prevent hepatitis B, alongside new and powerful antiviral drugs that can manage chronic hepatitis B and cure most cases of hepatitis C. These interventions together with early diagnosis and awareness campaigns have the potential to prevent 4.5 million premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries by 2030.
However, access to these services is often out of reach of communities as they are usually available at centralised/specialised hospitals at a cost which cannot be afforded by all. People continue to die because of late diagnosis or lack of appropriate treatment, if they are being diagnosed or treated at all. Early diagnosis is the gateway for both prevention and successful treatment.
Modest testing and treatment coverage is the most important gap to be addressed for an effective response to the hepatitis epidemic. If we look at the treatment cascade of the South-East Asia Region, only about 10% of people with hepatitis know their status. And of those who know their status, only 5% are on treatment. Of the estimated 10.5 million people with hepatitis C, just 7% know their status, of which around 1 in 5 are on treatment.
This gap, primarily attributable to general lack of awareness, needs to be patched up. This is what this year’s World Hepatitis Day campaign on 28 July is all about. It highlights the need to accelerate the fight against viral hepatitis by testing and treating the real people who need it, i.e. closing the equity gap by “leaving no one behind”.
Even before Covid-19, very few countries were on track to reach the 2030 elimination goals set by WHO. The pandemic has put elimination efforts further behind. Rather, it has potentially jeopardised national elimination programs. Fear of Covid-19 has been a substantial barrier to hepatitis testing and treatment throughout the crisis.
Amid all the challenges, the Region has continued to implement key interventions to prevent, detect and treat hepatitis, and to engage and empower at-risk populations. Since 2016, when the Region launched its Action Plan for Viral Hepatitis 2016–2021, nine countries have achieved more than 90% coverage of the third dose of hepatitis B vaccine. Four countries have achieved the hepatitis B control target of less than 1% seroprevalence among children over 5 years of age.
En route to the 2030 target of eliminating hepatitis, there are some transitional targets to be achieved. By 2025, together we must reduce new infections of hepatitis B and C by half, reduce deaths from liver cancer by 40%, and ensure that 60% of people living with hepatitis B and C are diagnosed and that half of those eligible receive appropriate treatment. This can only be achieved if hepatitis care reaches to the community. In order to do so, several priorities must be addressed, and these include the need to:
- Enhance political commitment across all countries of the Region and ensure sustained domestic funding for hepatitis.
- Improve access to drugs and diagnostics by further reducing prices, including integrating costs in national health and domestic financing.
- Develop communication strategies to increase awareness as the vast majority of the people do not know that they are infected, especially among subpopulations that are at higher risk of hepatitis B and C.
- Innovate service delivery to maximise the use of differentiated and people-centred service delivery options across HIV, viral hepatitis and STIs to tailor and deliver services according to people’s needs and preferences in line with the primary health care approach. Decentralising hepatitis care to peripheral health facilities, community-based venues and locations beyond hospital sites brings care nearer to patients’ homes. Bringing care closer to the community will also need innovations to strengthen community engagement, community-based service delivery and community-led monitoring.
For the first time, an integrated Regional Action Plan for viral hepatitis, HIV and STIs 2022–2026 is being developed by WHO. This integrated regional plan will ensure effective and efficient utilisation of limited resources available for the Region and will guide countries to adopt a person-centred approach rather than a disease-specific one.
All countries of South-East Asia must accelerate the coverage of testing and treatment services, including through large scale adoption of innovative technologies, simplified approaches at the primary health care level, and community participation. WHO remains committed to make South-East Asia free from viral hepatitis by 2030.
As we observe World Hepatitis Day, we must look forward and act together with communities and all stakeholders for a future free of hepatitis. This will lay a firm foundation for a healthier, more equitable and more prosperous Region and the world.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh is the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia.