Governments must step-up fight against hepatitis, experts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 9:20am

Before you're halfway through this article, another person will have died of viral hepatitis. New data shows that every 30 seconds, one person in the Asia-Pacific region dies of the disease, a death rate that's three times as high as HIV/Aids.

Yesterday, on World Hepatitis Day, the Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific urged governments to step up their efforts to combat the disease, which claims one million lives in the region each year, up from 695,000 in 1990.

These new figures reveal the increasing threat posed by viral hepatitis
Professor Chen Ding-shinn

"These new figures reveal the increasing threat posed by viral hepatitis to the Asia-Pacific region and are symptomatic of the poor understanding and lack of political commitment that has typically surrounded these diseases in many countries," says Professor Chen Ding-Shinn, chairman of the coalition.

Viral hepatitis refers to a group of diseases caused by infection from one of five viruses: A, B, C, D and E. Globally, viral hepatitis kills 1.4 million people each year, similar to the number of deaths from HIV/Aids. About 500 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis B or C.

Of the 350 million people with chronic hepatitis B, three in four live in the Asia-Pacific region. The B virus is spread through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person.

"Despite the escalating death toll from viral hepatitis, governments have often been at a loss about how to tackle these diseases, lacking the technical expertise, resources and even evidence to justify the investments needed to confront viral hepatitis," says Professor Darrell Crawford, acting dean of the University of Queensland's School of Medicine and coalition joint secretary.

"We now have the evidence that justifies the investment in the form of one million people dying needlessly every year."

In July last year, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) global hepatitis programme launched the framework for global action as a blueprint for governments to develop strategies to tackle viral hepatitis.

Professor Stephen Locarnini, director of the WHO regional reference laboratory for hepatitis B at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, urged governments to come up with a national action plan.

"We have a vaccine for hepatitis B and new treatments for chronic hepatitis C that could save millions of lives, but none of these matter if governments fail to tackle viral hepatitis in a more comprehensive way," he says.

To minimise the risk of hepatitis, Dr David Teo, regional medical director at International SOS, advises to get vaccinated, practise good hygiene, watch what you eat, practise safe sex, and avoid contact with blood.