A silent killer remains at large
Consider this: viral hepatitis affects an estimated 500 million people around the world - more than 10 times the number affected by HIV/Aids - claiming about one million deaths per year.
One in 12 people live with chronic hepatitis B or C, which together are the leading cause of liver cancer in the world, accounting for 78 per cent of cases. The hepatitis B virus was first discovered in 1965, almost a whole generation before the first reported cases of Aids in 1981.
Yet, hepatitis still lacks the same level of awareness, advocacy and funding as HIV/Aids. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the war - active and vocal and at times militant - against Aids.
But what of hepatitis? 'Despite knowing about the different forms of viral hepatitis for many decades, and of their impact, the political response to hepatitis B and C lags far behind that of HIV,' said Professor David Thomas, a HIV expert and chief of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
'Surveillance and diagnosis of viral hepatitis remain woefully under-resourced and many countries seem yet to realise that treatment not only saves lives, but the broader public health benefits of treatment often outweigh the cost.'
One advantage of playing catch up is the ability to learn from the past, and that's exactly what the global viral hepatitis community plans to do.
Two days ago, leaders from the community, as well as WHO regional experts, met in Taipei at a symposium organised by the Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific. The meeting, which took place at the 22nd Conference of the Asia Pacific Association for the Study of the Liver, discussed what can be learned from the HIV/Aids experience, in particular lobbying governments to improve public health policies.
A survey by the World Hepatitis Alliance published last year found that most governments from the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia considered viral hepatitis an urgent public health issue, but that the extent and effectiveness of existing policies varied greatly across the region.
Global collaboration and co-operation, as seen from the HIV/Aids experience, are key if any significant progress and public policy reform is to be achieved to reach the goal of eradicating - or at least managing - hepatitis, said Thomas in his keynote speech at the symposium.
'The HIV/Aids advocacy community blazed a trail for all those living with the disease. They have pushed and pushed and they haven't shut up,' said Charles Gore, World Hepatitis Alliance president. 'Their efforts over 30 years offer us in the viral hepatitis community so many important lessons, and it would criminally stupid to ignore them.'