Call to beat hepatitis, the "dormant" killer

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Testing for hepatitis in Togo. Photo: IRIN/Isidore Akollor

Around 400 million people are infected with hepatitis but only one in 20 know they have the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday.

In a call for action from countries ahead of World Hepatitis Day on Thursday 28 July, the UN health agency stressed the need for better access to testing and treatment "to stop people from dying needlessly".

The measures are part of a global strategy to reduce new hepatitis infections by 90 per cent by 2030.

Daniel Johnson has more.

Around one in three of those infected with the hepatitis virus – some 400 million people – will go on to develop cancer or liver disease.

And although the scale of the health threat is huge, with 1.45 million people dying of the disease in 2013, most people don't realise that they've been infected.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus can lie dormant for decades after being transmitted by contaminated water or food, bodily fluids and dirty needles.

Here's the UN health agency's Dr Stefan Wiktor, team lead for WHO's Global Hepatitis Programme:

"It's one of the reasons why people haven't really paid attention, it's silent, you have no symptoms for decades and so you get infected as a baby with Hepatitis B , or maybe as an injecting drug user when you're 16, and it's not until you're 40, 50, 60 that you develop cirrhosis. And in the intervening time you have no idea."

In May this year 194 governments agreed to a new strategy to take on viral hepatitis, which exists in five types: A, B, C, D and E.

The aim is to treat eight million people by 2020 for hepatitis B and C, which are the biggest killers.

One of the policies WHO's Dr Wiktor recommends is vaccinating newborns for hepatitis B in their first 24 hours of life, as "six weeks is too late", he says.

Just as important, countries should tailor their hepatitis policies based on those who get the disease, WHO says.

In richer countries, most infections happen among injecting drug users, while in poorer countries, the disease can be traced to poor sterilisation techniques in medical settings.

In all cases, WHO recommends that "everyone should be tested".

Daniel Johnson, United Nations, Geneva

Duration: 1’44″


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