WHO: Hepatitis is second-leading infectious cause of death worldwide

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More than 6,000 people a day are infected with viral hepatitis — and progress fighting the disease has stalled, a recently released World Health Organization report suggests.

The analysis, released at the World Hepatitis Summit in Lisbon this month, looks at the burden of viral hepatitis in 187 countries and assesses the world’s progress toward eliminating the disease.

Though hepatitis can be caused by heavy alcohol use and some medications, it can also be sparked by a virus that causes liver inflammation, jaundice, fever and other symptoms. There are five main virus strains, and some types can be prevented through vaccination. Two strains of the virus, hepatitis B and C, lead to long-term disease, with hepatitis B causing the vast majority of deaths.

Deaths from the disease are on the rise, the report notes, making viral hepatitis the second-leading cause of death among non-covid communicable diseases worldwide. In 2022, the authors write, viral hepatitis deaths increased to 1.3 million around the world, up from 1.1 million in 2019. Though new cases declined during that time, the report says the world is “off-track” toward the WHO’s goal of reducing new hepatitis infections by 90 percent and deaths by 65 percent by 2030.

Two-thirds of the global disease burden of viral hepatitis falls on just 10 countries: China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines and Russia. Inequities in primary care, medication availability, testing and vaccination drive those disparities, the report suggests.

“This report paints a troubling picture: despite progress globally in preventing hepatitis infections, deaths are rising because far too few people with hepatitis are being diagnosed and treated,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a news release.

The report identifies funding challenges that could further limit progress. But the WHO also concludes that a public health approach that expands equitable access to hepatitis interventions could get the world back on track and help eliminate the disease by the decade’s end.

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