Hepatitis: A Global Problem

Each year, viral hepatitis causes more than ONE million entirely preventable deaths.

By any measure, viral hepatitis — a blood-borne, liver-damaging virus — is a staggering public health problem. Nearly 330 million people have chronic hepatitis B or C virus infection, and viral hepatitis is the seventh leading cause of death globally. Yet less than 1 in 10 persons with chronic viral hepatitis, which can cause liver cancer, know they have it.

Misconceptions often impede the disease’s diagnosis and treatment. 

People with the disease are often undiagnosed until later in life, when they develop life-threatening illness resulting from liver cirrhosis or cancer. Though widely assumed to be caused primarily by drug use or unsafe sex, most people become infected with hepatitis because of unsafe healthcare or early in life from an infected mother or family member.

According to WHO, hepatitis B is most pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa and east Asia, where more than 1 in 10 adults live with hepatitis B because they did not benefit from routine childhood vaccination programmes. High rates of chronic infections are also found in the South American Amazon region and the southern parts of eastern and central Europe. Hepatitis B is also common in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

The central and east Asian and north and west African regions are the most affected by hepatitis C, primarily due to unsafe medical injections and other medical procedures. However, epidemics of hepatitis C virus infections among people who inject drugs are affecting all regions worldwide.

Fortunately, we have the means to stop this pandemic. 

Highly effective prevention and treatment tools exist in the form of childhood vaccinations for hepatitis B that prevent 95% of infections. New drugs can cure more than 90% of people with chronic hepatitis C infections. Treatment can reverse liver scarring and the risk of cancer.

Mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of hepatitis B could be eliminated via a comprehensive approach that includes prevention of hepatitis B virus infection in young women, testing for hepatitis B during pregnancy and treating those mothers at highest risk of infecting their newborns and providing hepatitis B virus vaccine to all infants within 24 hours of birth.


People With Chronic Viral Hepatitis That Know It

Hepatitis is a global problem:

2 billion people have been exposed to hepatitis B or C, of which 1.4 million will die this year from acute infection, cirrhosis and hepatitis-related liver cancer.

The life-giving liver.

The liver is the largest internal organ in the body. It is a virtual in-house health factory, drawing nutrients from the blood vessels of the intestine, filtering the blood, fighting infections — in all, performing more than 500 essential functions. In ancient times, the liver was regarded as the center of vitality and the seat of the soul. When damaged by chronic viral hepatitis or other causes, however, the liver reacts in ways that can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer; with declining function, fatal liver failure may occur.

Unfortunately, many people with hepatitis are asymptomatic and don’t know they are infected. If symptoms occur with an acute infection, they can present anytime from two weeks to six months after exposure, but symptoms of chronic viral hepatitis may take decades to develop, and sadly lead to the entirely preventable consequences mentioned above.

Researchers have discovered a number of different viruses that cause hepatitis. The most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, but also include hepatitis D and E. Together they present a serious global health problem.

Hepatitis A and hepatitis E typically spread through contact with food or water that have been contaminated by an infected person’s stool. People may also get hepatitis E by eating undercooked pork or deer. The hepatitis A and E viruses typically result in acute (short-term) infections. The body is able to fight off an acute infection and the virus goes away.

Hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and hepatitis D spread through contact with an infected person’s blood; for example, in health care settings with poor infection control, by sharing drug needles, or having unprotected sex.

The hepatitis B, C, and D viruses can cause acute and chronic, or life-long infections. Chronic hepatitis occurs when the body is incapable of fighting off the hepatitis virus, which then remains in the liver and blood. Chronic hepatitis is serious, and can lead to complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment of chronic hepatitis can prevent or lower the chances of developing these complications.