On July 28, the WHO African Region will join the global celebration of the World Hepatitis Day. The theme “Test. Treat. Hepatitis” draws attention to hepatitis B and C virus infections that cause long term (chronic) inflammation of the liver that leads to extensive scarring, liver cancer and untimely death. The goal of the World Hepatitis Day is to raise awareness of these infections and the importance of testing early because treatment is readily available.
Worldwide, there are 323 million people infected with Hepatitis B or C virus, a burden 10 times larger than the HIV epidemic. Over 1.4 million people die annually from liver disease caused by untreated infection including two out of every three liver cancer deaths.
In Africa, hepatitis B and C is a silent epidemic affecting over 70 million people. Among infected persons, 9 out of every 10 have never been tested because of lack of awareness and poor access to testing and treatment. I share the story of Bari, a 23-year-old boy who was diagnosed with Hepatitis B infection. His older sister developed yellow eyes and swollen belly, and recently died of liver cancer. “It was horrifying to discover the cause of her illness was hepatitis B infection. We must have become infected through minor cuts and close contact in childhood. We did not know that the infection could be silent for so long and its consequences so devastating.”
There is hope for Bari and millions like him. Cost effective medicines are available to control hepatitis B infection and prevent liver disease. Also, the Hepatitis B vaccine given at birth, together with infant vaccination, prevents over 95% of new infections that leads to liver cancer in later life. For Hepatitis C, newly available treatment can cure the infection in almost all patients within 12 weeks.
Today, I call on Member States to develop costed, National strategic Plans to serve as roadmaps for elimination of viral hepatitis. I urge countries to invest in the hepatitis response by scaling up domestic funding, and providing testing and treatment facilities, leveraging on the existing health infrastructure for HIV and other infectious disease.
WHO commends the efforts of the Global Fund in providing testing and treatment for Hepatitis C among patients receiving HIV care, and call on other partners to support the hepatitis response in Africa.
Health care workers, non-governmental organizations, civil society and people living with viral hepatitis must play a vital role in raising awareness and promoting testing and treatment for Hepatitis B and C. I call on researchers to work on simplifying testing and treatment, and find a cure for hepatitis B infection and a vaccine for hepatitis C.
WHO will continue to provide Member States with support and opportunities for regional and international collaboration. We have a vision of an Africa free of viral hepatitis by 2030 and everyone everywhere should have access to testing, diagnosis and treatment.
Now is the time to Test, the time to Treat, and the time to Cure Hepatitis.