AT ILC 2017

AMSTERDAM (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – An estimated 328 million people worldwide were living with chronic hepatitis B or C virus infection in 2015 according to a new report issued by the World Health Organization and launched at the International Liver Congress sponsored by the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL).

The WHO Global Hepatitis Report gives the worldwide prevalence of chronic hepatitis B (HBV) infection as 257 million and that of chronic hepatitis C (HCV) infection as 71 million at this time point, reported Yvan Hutin, MD, medical officer at the WHO Department of HIV and Global Hepatitis Programme (HIV/GHP) in Geneva.

“We worked with a number of institutions and experts to produce most of these estimates, including the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and The Center for Disease Analysis,” Dr. Hutin said.

Dr. Hutin explained that the report was needed as it sets the baseline or “year zero” for tracking the success of WHO’s new global health sector strategy on viral hepatitis, which aims to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat, reduce the number of new HBV and HCV infections by 90%, and reduce viral hepatitis mortality by 65% by 2030.

The report was “a very important statement for all of us who work in this field,” said EASL Vice-Secretary Tom Hemming Karslen, MD, during a press briefing. “This is a wonderful initiative helping all the activities that are now already ongoing and need to be strengthened to move in a coordinated manner.”

The launch of the report at the International Liver Congress was “win-win situation”, Gottfried Hirnschall, MD, director of the WHO Department of HIV/GHP, said at the press briefing.

“We are in the era of elimination. It is not only the commitment of the WHO, it is the commitment of the 194 member states who have signed up for elimination,” he said.

“An important message is that people are still dying of hepatitis, the numbers are still going up,” Dr. Hirnschall said. There were an estimated 1.34 million viral hepatitis deaths worldwide in 2015, most (95%) were due to the development of cirrhosis or hepatocellular carcinoma, according to the new report. “We have a public health issue that obviously still needs to be addressed.”

Three decades ago, little could be done to prevent or treat infection with HBV or HCV, Dr. Hutin said during the opening general scientific session. A lot has changed since then, prevention of hepatitis B started to become a reality with the availability of a vaccine and understanding of the importance of improved blood safety and injection practices. Since 2010, there have also been improvements in the drugs available to treat, and potentially eliminate, HCV, notably direct-acting antiviral agents.

“To reach elimination, we modeled that we needed to reach sufficient service coverage for five core interventions,” Dr. Hutin said. Specifically:

Vaccination against HBV has been one success in the past 20 years, Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, MD, medical officer at the WHO Department of Immunization Vaccination and Biologicals, said at the press briefing.

Vaccination against HBV started in 1982, she said, “when the first safe and effective vaccine became available, and now four out of five children receive this life-saving vaccine. We are very pleased with this achievement but we know that there is still more work to do.”

The WHO report estimates that the global incidence of chronic HBV infection in children under 5 years of age was reduced from 4.7% in the pre-vaccination era to 1.3% in 2015 because of immunization.

But while uptake of the three-dose hepatitis B vaccine has increased, with 85% coverage of the worlds population in 2015, the number of children receiving this vaccine at birth is just 39% overall, with lower rates in the African region.

As for HCV, Dr. Hutin said,“Overall, there are still 1.75 million new HCV infection each year; this is more than the number of people that we can manage to cure each year, which means the epidemic is still expanding.” He noted that deaths from viral hepatitis continue to rise year, which is in contrast to other viral infections such as malaria and HIV.

“Unsafe health care injections and injection drug use continue to transmit HCV, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean region and the European region,” Dr. Hutin said.

The WHO has already set up a campaign to improve blood and injection safety called “Get the Point,” but there is still a long way to go. The target is to provide 300 needle and syringe sets per person per year to people who inject drugs; the current rate is around 27 sets.

Of the 257 people infected with hepatitis B in 2015, only 9% were diagnosed and 1.7 million received treatment. As for hepatitis C, 20% of 71 million were diagnosed and 1.1 million received treatment.

“We need a public health approach that delivers all the basic services to all, including to specific groups that may differ from the general population in terms of incidence, prevalence, vulnerability, or needs,” said Dr. Hutin. This includes health care workers, intravenous drug users, prisoners, migrants, blood donors, men who have sex with men, sex workers, and indigenous populations.

“We have all the tools we need to eliminate hepatitis,” he said, adding that improved point of care tests, a functional cure for HBV, and a vaccine against HCV would accelerate the process.

“A year ago, elimination by 2030 looked very ambitious, but not that we’ve carefully looked at the baseline, it seems that we have a start. It’s going to be a lot of work but the train has left the station and we should get there,” Dr. Hutin concluded.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding for the production of the report. All speakers had no conflicts of interest.