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Viral hepatitis kills 1.34 million worldwide

Viral hepatitis is responsible for more premature deaths worldwide than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria.

The virus killed 1.34 million people in 2016 alone – 140,000 more than tuberculosis, 340,000 more than HIV and 621,00 more than malaria.  

Alongside heart disease, road accidents and Alzheimer’s disease, viral hepatitis is one of the top ten killers in the world. 

Researchers say that, in spite of advancements that have made both hepatitis B and hepatitis C much more treatable, viral hepatitis is not a high enough political priority internationally.

The study warns that the surge in viral hepatitis cases is driven in part by the opioid epidemic. 

Viral hepatitis attacks the liver, as pictured above, and kills more people than malaria, HIV or tuberculosis, a new study found. Pictured: file image of a liver infected with hepatitis

Viral hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver and related health problems. The most common types are hepatitis A, B and C.

Hepatitis A is the most mild and least common form of the virus. Hepatitis C is the most common form and a highly effective cure was discovered in 2014.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 257 million people were infected with hepatitis B in 2015. Treatments have recently been developed for chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer. 

The new study, published by Global Health Metrics is likely the most comprehensive data set on hepatitis compiled to date. 

‘Hepatitis has suffered from lack of prior and neglect,’ says Raquel Peck, CEO of the World Hepatitis Alliance, which was one of the study’s collaborators.

‘We suspected that hepatitis was a huge problem, but we didn’t have the data to validate it. Now we have a very credible study coming in and proving that his is a massive epidemic,’ she said. ‘We were horrified.’ 

The study analyzed data collected by The Global Burden of Disease 2016 Study and analysed reported causes of death from 195 countries between 1985 and 2016.

Peck says that many of the reasons that hepatitis is so widespread have also prevented data on the virus from being collected: a ‘lack of political prioritization, stigma,’ and the fact that it often takes a long time (up to 15 years) for hepatitis to begin to cause health problems. 

‘Doctors dissuade people [from getting tested and treated]; come back in 15 years,’ Peck says. ‘There’s a lot of bias to overcome.’ 

She says that hepatitis C is particularly problematic in the US, where in 2013 alone, deaths caused by hepatitis C surpassed those caused by all other infectious diseases combined.

The World Health Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland (pictured), has put together a global strategy to eliminate hepatitis by 2030, but, so far, the international community is not on track to meet  that goal

The World Health Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland (pictured), has put together a global strategy to eliminate hepatitis by 2030, but, so far, the international community is not on track to meet  that goal

Hepatitis C spreads when infected blood from one person’s body enters another. It can be transmitted through blood transfusions and medical procedures and, most notoriously, through needle sharing. 

Peck says that this ‘new wave’ of the hepatitis C is ‘tied up with the opioid epidemic.’

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that not only are annual deaths caused by hepatitis C up, but the rate of new infections is growing. 

The US is ‘proactive’ about testing people, but still struggles to identify those who are vulnerable, treat them, and to overcome high drug prices and the stigma surrounding the disease. 

The US is one of 194 countries that committed to the WHO’s strategy to eliminate hepatitis by 2030. Peck says that Egypt, Georgia and Germany have made ‘great efforts.’ She hopes that others will follow the examples of theses emerging ‘champion countries.’ 

So far, countries like the US are ‘not on track’ to meet that goal.  

The World Health Alliance has organized an international summit to be hosted by the government of Brazil in São Paulo in November, where delegates will discuss strategies to meet the 2030 goal.

Peck said that 950 people have agreed to attend, but that the US Department of Human Health and Services has not confirmed. 

Peck says that she has heard from her colleagues in the US that that ‘the [effort to fight] hepatitis has suffered and is suffering as a consequence of Donald Trump.’

‘There have been many cuts to the department, even though they do have a lot of problems, especially with the opioid epidemic.’