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WHO: 1.3 million lives lost annually to viral hepatitis infection

by Haruna Gimba
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By Muhammad Amaan

Viral hepatitis has become the second leading infectious cause of death, killing 3,500 people a day and contributing to more than a million deaths a year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed.

According to the WHO 2024 Global Hepatitis Report, the number of lives lost due to viral hepatitis is increasing, with 1.3 million deaths per yWHO 2024 Global Hepatitis Reportear, the same as tuberculosis, another top infectious killer.

The report, released at the World Hepatitis Summit, indicated that despite better tools for diagnosis and treatment, and decreasing product prices, testing and treatment coverage rates have stalled.

The report, however, stressed that reaching the WHO elimination goal by 2030 could still be achievable, if swift actions are taken now.

It added that new data from 187 countries showed that the estimated number of deaths from viral hepatitis increased from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022.

The report further stated, “Of these, 83 per cent were caused by hepatitis B, and 17 per cent by hepatitis C. Every day, there are 3500 people dying globally due to hepatitis B and C infections.”

The WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, said, “This report paints a troubling picture: despite progress globally in preventing hepatitis infections, deaths are rising because far too few people with hepatitis are being diagnosed and treated.

“WHO is committed to supporting countries to use all the tools at their disposal – at access prices – to save lives and turn this trend around.”

WHO in the new report estimated that 254 million people live with hepatitis B and 50 million with hepatitis C in 2022.

It added that half the burden of chronic hepatitis B and C infections is among people 30–54 years old, with 12 per cent among children under 18 years of age, while men account for 58 per cent of all cases.

The reported stated, “New incidence estimates indicate a slight decrease compared to 2019, but the overall incidence of viral hepatitis remains high. In 2022, there were 2.2 million new infections, down from 2.5 million in 2019.

“These include 1.2 million new hepatitis B infections and nearly 1 million new hepatitis C infections. More than 6000 people are getting newly infected with viral hepatitis each day.

“The revised estimates are derived from enhanced data from national prevalence surveys. They also indicate that prevention measures such as immunization and safe injections, along with the expansion of hepatitis C treatment, have contributed to reducing the incidence.

“Across all regions, only 13 per cent of people living with chronic hepatitis B infection had been diagnosed and approximately 3 per cent (7 million) had received antiviral therapy at the end of 2022. Regarding hepatitis C, 36 per cent had been diagnosed and 20 per cent (12.5 million) had received curative treatment.

“These results fall well below the global targets to treat 80 per cent of people living with chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C by 2030. However, they do indicate slight but consistent improvement in diagnosis and treatment coverage since the last reported estimates in 2019.

“Specifically, hepatitis B diagnosis increased from 10 per cent to 13 per cent and treatment from 2 per cent to 3 per cent, and hepatitis C diagnosis from 21 per cent to 36 per cent and treatment from 13 per cent to 20 per cent.”

WHO, however, said the burden of viral hepatitis varies regionally, adding that the African Region bears 63 per cent of new hepatitis B infections, yet despite this burden, only 18 per cent of newborns in the region receive the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination.

According to WHO, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation and Vietnam, collectively shoulder nearly two-thirds of the global burden of hepatitis B and C.

It stressed that intensified efforts in the African Region, is essential to get the global response back on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and achieve universal access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in these ten countries by 2025.

The WHO bemoaned the fact that despite the availability of affordable generic viral hepatitis medicines, many countries fail to procure them at lower prices.

“Pricing disparities persist both across and within WHO regions, with many countries paying above global benchmarks, even for off-patent drugs or when included in voluntary licensing agreements.

“For example, although tenofovir for treatment of hepatitis B is off patent and available at a global benchmark price of US$2.4 per month, only seven of the 26 reporting countries paid prices at or below the benchmark.

“Similarly, a 12-week course of pangenotypic sofosbuvir/daclatasvir to treat hepatitis C is available at a global benchmark price of US$60, yet only 4 of 24 reporting countries paid prices at or below the benchmark.

“Service delivery remains centralized and vertical, and many affected populations still face out-of-pocket expenses for viral hepatitis services.

“Only 60 per cent of reporting countries offer viral hepatitis testing and treatment services free of charge, either entirely or partially, in the public sector. Financial protection is lower in the African Region, where only about one third of reporting countries provide these services free of charge,” the report concluded.

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