Hepatitis kills 1.4 million a year

The disease is a silent epidemic that kills two people per minute

As World Hepatitis Day approaches, the Pan American Health Organisation and the World Health Organisation are urging the public to learn about the disease and get screened and treated, if necessary.

According to a joint news release issued by the health organisations Monday, viral hepatitis affects some 424 million people throughout the world, killing 1.4 million per year as a result of complications, such as acute liver failure, cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Hepatitis is sometimes called a “silent epidemic” because most people with the disease don’t realise they are infected.

World Hepatitis Day will be observed on Sunday, 28 July. This year’s theme is “This is the hepatitis. Know It. Confront it.”

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“People know very little about hepatitis, its potential severity, and its serious consequences for health and quality of life,” said PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. “We therefore need to intensify our information, education and communication initiatives around this disease and take action to promote prevention and early detection so people can get the treatment they need.”

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver generally caused by a viral infection. Five principal types of hepatitis virus are known: A, B, C, D and E, which can be transmitted in several ways, including unprotected sexual intercourse, unsafe injecting and piercing practices and through contaminated water or food. These cause infection and severe and chronic inflammation of the liver, which in turn can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

In the Americas, between eight million and 11 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis B infection, and seven million have chronic hepatitis C.

The disease puts a heavy burden on healthcare systems because of the high cost of treatment and, in many countries, it is the main cause for liver transplants.

The fact that most people do not have symptoms – and tend not to have them for decades until they develop chronic liver disease – has contributed to the problem of poor diagnosis and inadequate treatment.

“The number of deaths throughout the world each year from causes associated with hepatitis is about equal to the number of traffic deaths, that is, more than two deaths every minute,” said Rafael Mazin, PAHO/WHO senior adviser on HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis.

Hepatitis can be controlled by maintaining good hygiene, avoiding consumption of contaminated food and water, getting vaccinated for hepatitis B, practising safe sex and not sharing injections or piercing equipment.

PAHO/WHO has been collaborating with its member states on strategies to prevent and control viral hepatitis. All the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands, have officially introduced the hepatitis B vaccine into their child immunisation programmes, and more than 99 per cent of donated blood units are screened for the hepatitis B and C viruses.

PAHO also promotes hepatitis B vaccination of health workers and the expanded use of sterilised, disposable injecting, cutting and piercing tools and instruments to prevent cross infections, including needles used both in health facilities and in cosmetic procedures, such as tattooing.

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday was due to launch a new global policy report on prevention and control of viral hepatitis. The report presents the results of a survey examining the response of WHO member states to the disease and provides information from 27 countries throughout the Americas.

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