Hepatitis affects about 2 billion people around the globe and causes the death of roughly one million each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
On July 28, WHO participated in World Hepatitis Day for the first time, joining the global effort to raise awareness of the disease through a worldwide campaign that uses posters, radio, television and social media to create awareness.
“We know what needs to be done,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general. “Viral hepatitis is one of the most prevalent and serious infectious diseases in the world. It deserves much more attention, understanding and action.”
WHO defines the disease as inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses: referred to as types A, B, C, D and E.
Types B and C lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer, the agency states.
On World Hepatitis Day, the White House noted in a proclamation that millions of Americans live with viral hepatitis. About 75 percent of them are unaware of their status.
Some groups of Americans are particularly at greater risk: those who received donated blood before the beginning of mandatory screening of the national blood supply, infants born to infected mothers, IV drug users and those with sexually transmitted diseases.
The proclamation also highlighted that half of all Americans with hepatitis B are of Asian and Pacific Island descent; and baby boomers and African Americans contract hepatitis C at higher rates than other Americans do.
President Barack Obama stated: “We must make sure that this ‘silent epidemic’ does not go unnoticed by health professionals or by communities across our country. Under the Affordable Care Act, services including hepatitis immunizations for adults and hepatitis screenings for pregnant women are fully covered by all new insurance plans.”
Millions of people with hepatitis have no symptoms of the disease, Chan emphasized in her statement. That’s why she recommends getting tested as the first line of defense. Hepatitis is treatable if caught early. In many cases, signs of the disease appear a decade or more after contracting it, and by that time treatments are often ineffective.
WHO also calls for increased vaccinations for the strains that can be stopped by immunization, better screening for blood transfers and the use of sterile equipment in medical facilities.