Experts: More Effort Needed to Curb Hepatitis

Governments must do more to raise awareness and curb rising incidences of chronic hepatitis B and C, diseases that affect more than 500 million people in the world, a leading expert on the disease said on Thursday.

Both can cause permanent damage to the liver, including cirrhosis, or scarring, and liver cancer if they are not properly controlled. They result in a combined 1.5 million deaths a year.

"Governments are absolutely not doing enough," said Charles Gore, president of the World Hepatitis Alliance, a group representing hepatitis patients in many parts of the world.

"It's one of those circular problems. Awareness is low, so it's not on the priority list. Funds are not put into it, there is very little advocacy and nobody is doing anything to raise awareness.

"We are talking 500 million people with hepatitis B or C, with 1.5 million deaths annually. HIV is 33 million (number of people infected) and 2.1 million deaths. It's the same ballpark in terms of mortality, but in terms of awareness, it is nowhere."

Hepatitis B is endemic in parts of Asia and Africa, and the chief mode of transmission is from mother to child.

Worldwide, there are 360 million hepatitis B carriers and up to 130 million of those are in China. Between 10-17 percent of the Chinese population are carriers, depending on the area.

Worldwide, there are 170 million people with chronic hepatitis C, which is mostly transmitted through needle sharing. About 150,000 new cases occur annually in the United States and in Western Europe, and about 350,000 in Japan.

Citing the example of Britain, Gore said the country had no figures on hepatitis B, but that 5,000 people were being treated for hepatitis C, with up to 15,000 new infections a year.

"Prevalence is increasing, which shows we are not getting this awareness out there and changing people's behavior," Gore said ahead of a hepatitis conference in Hong Kong over the weekend.

Nancy Leung, a hepatitis specialist doctor in Hong Kong, said more needed to be done to educate the public on the importance of vaccination for newborn babies, who must receive three jabs - immediately after birth, at one month and at sixth months.

While an increasing number of countries have universal vaccination, coverage is not full or is inefficient.

"If the mother doesn't see the importance, they don't bring the child back (in 6 months) and it is ineffective vaccination even if the system is in place," Leung said.