GENEVA, Switzerland (CMC) — The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging Caribbean countries to take advantage of recent reductions in the costs of diagnosing and treating viral hepatitis, and scale up investments in disease elimination.
A new study by WHO, published on Friday in Lancet Global Health, has found that investing US$6 billion annually in eliminating hepatitis in 67 low- and middle-income countries, such as those in the Caribbean, would avert 4.5 million premature deaths by 2030 and more than 26 million deaths beyond that target date.
The study says a total of US$58.7 billion is needed to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat in these 67 countries by 2030, adding this means reducing new hepatitis infections by 90 per cent and deaths by 65 per cent.
“Today, 80 per cent of people living with hepatitis can’t get the services they need to prevent, test for and treat the disease,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, adding that on World Hepatitis Day, which will be observed on Sunday “we’re calling for bold political leadership, with investments to match.
“We call on all countries to integrate services for hepatitis into benefit packages as part of their journey towards universal health coverage.”
The study notes that by investing in diagnostic tests and medicines for treating hepatitis B and C now, countries can save lives, and reduce costs related to the long-term care of cirrhosis and liver cancer that result from untreated hepatitis.
Without identifying them, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said that three countries in the Americas, including the Caribbean, have established the goal of eliminating hepatitis as a public health problem by 2030.
It said, in order to achieve that, these countries are working on price reductions of key antiviral medicines, adding that its Strategic Fund for medicines has available options to treat Hepatitis C.
In addition to existing originator combination therapy, the fund is including WHO prequalified generic antivirals available for countries in the region that can buy the generic version of the treatment, PAHO said.
It said around 3.9 million people in the Region of the Americas are living with hepatitis B and another 7.2 million with hepatitis C, while about 125,000 died from viral hepatitis in 2013.
PAHO said around 96 per cent of this mortality from viral hepatitis is a result of chronic hepatitis B and C infection, leading to cirrhosis and primary liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatitis B and C antivirals can reduce the risk of developing liver cancer by around 75 per cent, PAHO said.
In 2016, it said around 14 per cent of individuals with Hepatitis C have been diagnosed, while less than one per cent have been treated in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“No one should die from hepatitis. We have the tools to save lives – a cure for hepatitis C, effective treatment for hepatitis B,” said Marcos Espinal, PAHO’s Director of the Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health.
“There is no question that the Americas have had substantial success in infant vaccination against hepatitis B which will save millions of lives. But this alone is not enough. Immunization cannot help those already infected with hepatitis B, and no vaccine exists for hepatitis C.
“Hepatitis C cases can now be cured in just three months, and this saves lives. Treatment, however, remains unaffordable or inaccessible for most in the region. We need urgent investment by ministries to scale-up diagnosis and treatment now to reach the goal to eliminate hepatitis as a public health problem in the Americas by 2030,” he added.