A new World Health Organization (WHO) report has raised an alarm regarding the global burden of viral hepatitis infections.

Viral hepatitis, a communicable diseases that may cause liver inflammation, damage and cancer, has emerged as the second leading infectious cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 2024 Global Hepatitis Report.

The report notes that the number of deaths caused by this killer infection across 187 countries spiked from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022. Of these, 83 percent deaths were caused by hepatitis B, and 17 percent by hepatitis C. Every day, there are 3500 people dying globally due to hepatitis B and C infections.

Among other startling statistics of the report, India happens to be among the top 10 countries that are contributing to two-thirds of the global burden of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C cases. With a total of 3.5 crore cases, India accounted for 11.6 percent of the total disease burden globally in 2022.

World Hepatitis Day
Visit a doctor if you notice any signs of hepatitis. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Global Hepatitis Report paints a troubling picture: WHO Director-General

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the 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,” he said in a statement.

Apart from India, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation and Vietnam, collectively shoulder nearly two-thirds of the global burden of hepatitis B and C. While WHO’s viral hepatitis elimination goal is for 2030, it hopes to achieve universal access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in these ten countries by 2026.

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The challenge lies in how many people remain undiagnosed in many countries. Even upon hepatitis diagnosis, the number of people receiving treatment remains incredibly low. Despite availability of medicines at affordable prices, policy, programmatic and access barriers continue to impede the journey towards a viral hepatitis-free world.

Woman shows liver
Hepatitis hampers the function of the liver. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

What is viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, an important metabolic organ responsible for detoxification of harmful toxins, absorption of vital nutrients, filtering of blood for healthy circulation, production of bile for digestion and more. If the liver malfunctions, it has wide-ranging side effects on the body’s daily functioning. While heavy alcohol intake, toxins, certain medications and medical conditions can lead to hepatitis, it is mostly a result of a virus.

Different types of Hepatitis: A, B, C, D, E and G are contracted due to different reasons. The susceptibility to contract the virus, vaccine, diagnosis and treatment also differ from each other.

WHO recommendations to reduce hepatitis spread

The WHO has outlined an action-oriented plan to end the viral hepititis epidemic by 2030. These actionables include expanding access to testing and diagnostics, shifting from policies to implementation for equitable treatment, and strengthening primary care prevention efforts. The plan is also to simplify service delivery, optimise product regulation and supply, and using improved data for action.

Funding for viral hepatitis also remains a pressing challenge, as per WHO. This is attributed to limited awareness of cost-saving interventions and tools, as well as competing priorities in global health agendas.

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