As a healthcare professional responsible for the diagnosis of viral hepatitis and researcher, I see the devastating impact of viral hepatitis on patients, families and communities.
Hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver and is known as a silent killer; many times there are few or no early signs and symptoms. Some 350 million people around the world are affected by hepatitis, and the disease kills approximately 1.4 million people every year – more than HIV/AIDS.
There’s a lot of stigma around hepatitis and how you get it. Some people think it’s only a disease of certain risk groups, especially of those who inject drugs. That’s one way hepatitis can spread, but there are many others, including contact with contaminated food or water, through sex, from mother to child or subcutaneous, intravenous or intramuscular contact with bodily fluids of an infected person.
Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E are caused by five different viruses that have likely affected humans for thousands of years. Hepatitis B and C have the greatest impact across the globe; hepatitis B is directly associated with more than 50% of all liver cancers, and hepatitis C is the main cause of liver transplantation.
Early diagnosis is critical to timely treatment and stopping viral replication of hepatitis, and is the pillar of global health interventions. Because signs or symptoms of liver disease are often not apparent until the liver is severely damaged, better knowledge of hepatitis infection risks and ways of infection is necessary among the general population and even with doctors.
Great advances in science and medicine have helped. In fact, vaccines (90% effective) are available for hepatitis A and B, and highly effective antiviral treatments can stop viral replication in hepatitis B and C.
The key? These treatments must be applied as soon as possible to avoid silent progression of the disease. So it follows that early treatment requires early diagnosis, and greater global awareness about hepatitis.
We’ve known of the virus responsible for hepatitis B since the 1960s, thanks to the work of Dr. Baruch Blumberg, whose 28 July birthday was chosen to mark World Hepatitis Day each year. Dr. Blumberg obtained the first vaccine against this virus and was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1976.
According to the World Health Organization, or WHO, Hepatitis B has infected almost a third of the world population, and around 250 million people are infected, especially in Asia and Africa. This virus is the main cause of liver cancer across the globe, and low- to middle-income countries are most impacted.
Some 70 million people are infected by hepatitis C, with a very high risk to develop severe liver lesions, including cirrhosis (scarring) or hepatocarcinoma (liver cancer.) Primary infection can become chronic in more than 50% of cases. Unfortunately, a vaccine has not been developed. However, easy-to-administer oral treatment pills can cure this infection in less than three months in more than 95% of treated patients, preventing progression to liver cirrhosis or even liver cancer.
A commitment to making hepatitis diagnosis easily accessible and available is essential. We have highly sensitive analytical systems capable of processing thousands of samples in a single working day. Even in remote places where these technologies are not available, we have systems to obtain samples and send them to central laboratories. For example, we can use dry capillary blood fixed on paper cards after a finger prick, or even rapid diagnostic serological (antibody) tests to detect the presence of viral antigens or antibodies in blood.
Thanks to advances like these, hepatitis diagnosis has been greatly simplified, allowing diagnosis and treatment for thousands of infected people who would not have been detected with classical procedures. But for the vast majority of those who suffer from hepatitis B or C, access to diagnosis remains out of reach. According to the WHO, 80% of people with hepatitis cannot obtain the services they need to prevent, detect and treat the disease.
By investing now in diagnostic tests and drugs to treat hepatitis B and C, millions of human beings can be saved and also reduce costs related to long-term care for the serious complications of these infections such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
28 July is World Hepatitis Day. With a person dying every 30 seconds from a hepatitis related illness – even in the current COVID-19 crisis – we can’t wait to act on viral hepatitis. Learn more about why