New WHO data reveal that an estimated 325 million people worldwide are living with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. The WHO Global hepatitis report, 2017 indicates that the large majority of these people lack access to life-saving testing and treatment. As a result, millions of people are at risk of a slow progression to chronic liver disease, cancer, and death.
“Viral hepatitis is now recognized as a major public health challenge that requires an urgent response,” said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Vaccines and medicines to tackle hepatitis exist, and WHO is committed to helping ensure these tools reach all those who need them.”
Viral hepatitis caused 1.34 million deaths in 2015, a number comparable to deaths caused by tuberculosis and HIV. But while mortality from tuberculosis and HIV has been declining, deaths from hepatitis are on the increase.
Approximately 1.75 million people were newly infected with HCV in 2015, bringing the global total of people living with hepatitis C to 71 million.
Although overall deaths from hepatitis are increasing, new infections of HBV are falling, thanks to increased coverage of HBV vaccination among children. Globally, 84% of children born in 2015 received the 3 recommended doses of hepatitis B vaccine.
“We are still at an early stage of the viral hepatitis response, but the way forward looks promising,” said Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of WHO’s Department of HIV and the Global Hepatitis Programme. “More countries are making hepatitis services available for people in need – a diagnostic test costs less than US$ 1 and the cure for hepatitis C can be below US$ 200. But the data clearly highlight the urgency with which we must address the remaining gaps in testing and treatment.”
Between the pre-vaccine era (which, according to the year of introduction can range from the 1980s to the early 2000s) and 2015, the proportion of children under 5 years of age with new infections fell from 4.7% to 1.3%. However, an estimated 257 million people, mostly adults born before the introduction of the HBV vaccine, were living with chronic hepatitis B infection in 2015.