Hepatitis emerges as second-leading infectious killer, WHO reports

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An electron microscope captured a color-enhanced image of a hepatitis C virion.

NEW YORK, April 14: At the recent World Hepatitis Summit held in Lisbon, a sobering report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) sheds light on the alarming state of viral hepatitis worldwide. The analysis, encompassing data from 187 countries, reveals a troubling trend of stagnation in the fight against this deadly disease.

Viral hepatitis, a condition characterized by liver inflammation, jaundice, and fever, affects over 6,000 individuals daily, according to the WHO report. While factors like heavy alcohol consumption and certain medications can trigger hepatitis, the primary cause stems from viral infections. Among the five main virus strains, hepatitis B and C pose the greatest threat, often leading to chronic illness and, in the case of hepatitis B, a majority of fatalities.

Despite efforts to combat the disease, deaths from viral hepatitis are on the rise, making it the second-leading cause of death among non-COVID communicable diseases globally. The report reveals a stark increase in hepatitis-related deaths, reaching 1.3 million worldwide in 2022, up from 1.1 million in 2019. This surge in mortality comes at a time when new infection rates are declining, highlighting a concerning disparity between efforts and outcomes.

A deeper analysis underscores the disproportionate burden of viral hepatitis, with two-thirds of global cases concentrated in just ten countries: China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Russia. Inadequacies in primary care, medication availability, testing, and vaccination contribute to this stark imbalance.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed grave concern over the report findings, emphasizing the urgent need for improved diagnosis and treatment access. He noted that while progress has been made in preventing hepatitis infections, the escalating death toll underscores significant gaps in healthcare delivery.

The report also highlights funding challenges that could impede further advancements in combating viral hepatitis. However, the WHO remains optimistic, advocating for a robust public health approach that prioritizes equitable access to hepatitis interventions. By expanding access to testing, treatment, and vaccination, the WHO believes the world can regain momentum in the fight against viral hepatitis and ultimately achieve its goal of disease elimination by 2030.

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