Hepatitis B and C Affect 325 Million Worldwide with Most Failing to Get Treatment, WHO Says

Gail Connor Roche

WHO estimates 325 million people worldwide are living with chronic HBV or HCV.

The World Health Organization estimates that 325 million people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B or C virus infections (HBV, HCV) and most of them don’t have access to the testing and treatment that could save their lives.

The lack of effective care puts millions at risk for persistent liver disease, cancer and death, the WHO concluded in its Global Hepatitis Report, 2017. The report, released on April 21, offers a starting point for hepatitis elimination by providing baseline statistics on HBV and HCV infections.

Viral hepatitis caused 1.34 million deaths in 2015, about the same number as tuberculosis (TB) and greater than human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). But while mortalities from those diseases have been dropping, hepatitis deaths are rising, the WHO found. HBV and HCV are responsible for 96% of all hepatitis mortality.

“Viral hepatitis is now recognized as a major public health challenge that requires an urgent response,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Vaccines and medicines to tackle hepatitis exist, and WHO is committed to helping ensure these tools reach all those who need them.”

HBV, which affected 257 million people in 2015, is commonly spread from mother to child at birth. The WHO reported that 84% of children born in 2015 received the 3 recommended doses of HBV vaccine, a move that helped reduce new infections.

In contrast, new HCV cases rose. Some 1.75 million people were first infected in 2015, bringing the global HCV total to 71 million people.

HCV is typically spread by unsafe injections in healthcare settings and through injecting drug use. There is no vaccine, but HCV can be cured in a relatively short time with direct-acting antiviral (DAA) drugs. The WHO increased potential access to such medicines in March when it prequalified the generic active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) of sofosbuvir, which is used in antivirals. This step will help companies produce affordable hepatitis medicines, the WHO said.

“More countries are making hepatitis services available for people in need—a diagnostic test costs less than $1 and the cure for hepatitis C can be below $200,” said Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of the WHO’s Department of HIV and the Global Hepatitis Programme. “The data clearly highlight the urgency with which we must address the remaining gaps in testing and treatment.”

On that front, the WHO found that only a small number of global hepatitis infections were diagnosed in 2015. Just 9% of all HBV cases and 20% of HCV infections were identified. An even smaller fraction of patients with viral hepatitis were being treated—8% of those diagnosed with HBV and 7% of those with HCV, the organization said.

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