Hepatitis: it's closer than you think

WHO will celebrate World Hepatitis Day on 28 July 2012 as part of its work to prevent and control viral hepatitis. This year WHO/Europe specifically focuses on hepatitis C in injecting drug users and high hepatitis C/HIV coinfection, to generate awareness and inform people about associated risks, early detection and prevention methods.

“One of the most neglected major diseases in the WHO European Region, which we need to address as part of Millennium Development Goal 6, is viral hepatitis B and C,” says Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

About hepatitis

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by one of five hepatitis viruses, types A–E. Infected people can experience mild illness or serious and permanent liver damage. The different types of hepatitis can be contracted in various ways.

Hepatitis type Transmission method

A

Ingestion of contaminated food or water

B

Parenteral (blood-to-blood) contact with infected body fluids, sexual contact

C

Parenteral (blood-to-blood) contact with infected body fluids, sexual contact

D

Parenteral (blood-to-blood) contact with infected body fluids (contracted only if the person is already infected with hepatitis B)

E

Ingestion of contaminated food or water
 

The problem

For World Hepatitis Day 2012, WHO/Europe is focusing on hepatitis C, a particular concern in the WHO European Region. About 9 million people in the Region are infected with hepatitis C, which kills around 86 000 annually. As a high proportion of infected people show no symptoms, most do not know that they are infected. The virus therefore remains neglected until the disease has reached a chronic stage.

Injecting drug users have an especially high risk of hepatitis C, and up to 98% of them are already infected. Coinfection with HIV and viral hepatitis is also very common: up to 70% of injecting drug users in eastern Europe who are living with HIV are also infected with hepatitis C. Chronic viral hepatitis is becoming an increasingly major cause of death among these people, even though HIV treatment is becoming more accessible in the Region.

In the WHO European Region, hepatitis diagnosis and treatment are very expensive, and access to prevention and treatment services can be limited in many countries, particularly in eastern Europe and central Asia.

Prevention

People can take measures to avoid or lower the risk of contracting hepatitis C, such as following practices for safe sex and safe injection. To reduce the transmission of hepatitis B and C, WHO recommends safe blood-transfusion and safe injection practices, and the vaccination of all infants against hepatitis B. People at risk of hepatitis B and C should contact their local health practitioners to find out more about testing and treatment methods.

The objectives of the European Action Plan for HIV/AIDS 2012–2015 include reducing the burden of HIV and viral hepatitis coinfection. This can be achieved by integrating hepatitis services into countries’ health systems. Such services include safe blood transfusion, testing and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, immunization programmes and rehabilitation programmes for injecting drug users.

European Member States can reduce the prevalence viral hepatitis in the Region if they all dedicate themselves to this goal and cooperate to achieve it.