Washington, D.C., 28 July 2014 (PAHO/WHO) — On World Hepatitis Day, July 28, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) acknowledges stepped-up global and regional action to prevent and control viral hepatitis in recent years and the potential for new drugs to cure the disease. But the Organization also highlights the need to make the benefits of this progress more accessible for those who need them most.

WHO recognized viral hepatitis as a global public health problem and established World Hepatitis Day in 2010 to raise awareness of this group of infections that cause acute and chronic liver disease and claim some 1.4 million lives globally each year—nearly as many as claimed by HIV/AIDS. The slogan for the 2014 World Hepatitis Day campaign is "Hepatitis: Think Again."

The development of new drugs that allow for short, safe and effective treatment of chronic hepatitis C was one of the most important advances in this area over the past year, especially given the absence of a vaccine for hepatitis C. The drugs have shown cure rates of more than 90%, revolutionizing treatment for this disease. However, major problems need to be overcome, including the high numbers of people with hepatitis C who go undiagnosed and the high costs of these drugs.

In the Americas, some 13 million people are affected by hepatitis C. "This situation is worrying given the high risk of developing chronic infections and complications like cirrhosis and liver cancer," said Massimo Ghidinelli, head of PAHO/WHO's HIV, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis and Sexually Transmitted Infections unit. "Early detection and access to quality treatment at affordable cost could prevent many people from developing those complications."

Last May, representatives of 194 countries passed a resolution at the World Health Assembly calling for improving prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of viral hepatitis. PAHO/WHO is working to strengthen the public health response in the Americas and is adapting WHO's new guidelines on detection, treatment and care for people with hepatitis C. WHO is currently developing new guidelines for prevention and treatment of hepatitis B.

Some countries in the Americas have started new efforts to expand diagnosis and treatment of viral hepatitis. Brazil, for example, is incorporating the use of rapid diagnostic tests to expand access to treatment, and the United States has begun expanding testing for hepatitis C among people born between 1945 and 1965 and among high-risk groups.

Most people who have hepatitis are unaware of it.

"Viral hepatitis continues to be a silent epidemic," said Rafael Mazin, PAHO/WHO senior advisor on HIV, sexually transmitted Infections and hepatitis. "Most people who have hepatitis B or C do not know they have the infection, because the symptoms tend to take a number of years to appear."

Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with the blood or bodily fluids of infected persons. A vaccine against hepatitis B has been available since 1982 and has been incorporated into childhood vaccination schedules in all Latin American and Caribbean countries, with average coverage rates of over 90%. Moreover, more than 99% of donated blood in the region is screened for hepatitis B and C.

In addition to hepatitis B and C, there are also hepatitis A and E, which are usually caused by ingesting contaminated water or food, and hepatitis D, which only occurs in people with hepatitis B and is transmitted through blood, semen and other bodily fluids.

Virtual discussion sessions

On World Hepatitis Day, PAHO/WHO will hold two virtual discussion sessions (in Spanish) to provide information and to promote the creation of regional response networks to this silent epidemic. The sessions will be held on July 29 and 31 from 11 a.m. to 12 noon (Washington, D.C., time). For more information visit this page.

PAHO, founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.