WHO Report Warns of Alarming Rise in Hepatitis Deaths

According to the report, the number of deaths due to viral hepatitis has increased from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022
Hepatitis B and C are responsible for the majority of these deaths, with hepatitis B causing 83% and hepatitis C causing 17%. (Representational image: Wikimedia commons)
Hepatitis B and C are responsible for the majority of these deaths, with hepatitis B causing 83% and hepatitis C causing 17%. (Representational image: Wikimedia commons)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued an urgent warning about the rising death toll from viral hepatitis infections, with an alarming 3,500 people dying every day. This concerned discovery comes from the World Health Organization's 2024 Global Hepatitis Report, which was released during the World Hepatitis Summit. Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment techniques, as well as reduced product pricing, the report identifies a concerning pattern of static testing and treatment coverage rates.

According to the report, the number of deaths due to viral hepatitis has increased from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022. Hepatitis B and C are responsible for the majority of these deaths, with hepatitis B causing 83% and hepatitis C causing 17%. The global death toll from these illnesses is shocking: 3,500 people die every day.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed serious concern about the escalating death toll, underscoring the urgent need for expanded diagnosis and treatment efforts. Despite considerable advances in reducing hepatitis infections worldwide, the rising death toll highlights a critical gap in detection and treatment.

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
General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director.

The report reveals that in 2022, approximately 254 million people were living with hepatitis B and 50 million with hepatitis C. Alarmingly, half of the burden of chronic hepatitis B and C infections falls on individuals aged 30–54, with 12% affecting children under 18. Men constitute 58% of all cases.

While there has been a slight decrease in new infections since 2019, the overall incidence of viral hepatitis remains high. In 2022 alone, there were 2.2 million new infections, including 1.2 million cases of hepatitis B and roughly 1 million cases of hepatitis C. According to the research, this decline is partially due to preventive initiatives such as immunization and safe injections, as well as an increase in hepatitis C treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment Gaps

The WHO's 2024 Global Hepatitis Report highlights significant gaps in the identification and treatment of viral hepatitis worldwide. Despite advances in medical technology and reduced product pricing, rates of testing and treatment coverage have remained constant. This inactivity has resulted in an increase in deaths from viral hepatitis, which now claims 1.3 million lives each year, making it the world's second-greatest infectious cause of death.

The research emphasizes that only a small percentage of individuals with chronic hepatitis B and C infections have been recognized and treated. Specifically, by the end of 2022, only 13% of hepatitis B patients had been diagnosed, with only 3% receiving antiviral medication. Similarly, just 36% of hepatitis C cases have been detected, of which only 20% get medical treatment. These statistics are significantly lower than the WHO's global targets of treating 80% of people with chronic hepatitis B and C by 2030.

Urgent action is required to address these diagnostic and therapeutic gaps. The WHO emphasizes the significance of increasing access to testing and diagnostics, shifting from policies to implementation for fair treatment, and strengthening primary care preventative efforts. Simplifying service delivery and optimizing product regulation as well as supply are also identified as important steps.

Personalized strategies and increased efforts are required to address these geographical differences, especially in areas where the incidence of viral hepatitis is high. (Representational image: Wikimedia commons)
Personalized strategies and increased efforts are required to address these geographical differences, especially in areas where the incidence of viral hepatitis is high. (Representational image: Wikimedia commons)

Regional Variations in the Incidence

The burden of viral hepatitis varies significantly across regions, with certain areas facing excessive challenges. For instance, the WHO African Region bears 63% of new hepatitis B infections, yet only 18% of newborns in the region receive the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination. In contrast, the Western Pacific Region accounts for 47% of hepatitis B deaths.

Moreover, treatment coverage remains insufficient in many regions. For example, in the Western Pacific Region, treatment coverage stands at only 23% among diagnosed individuals, far below the level needed to reduce death rates.

Personalized strategies and increased efforts are required to address these geographical differences, especially in areas where the incidence of viral hepatitis is high. In order to be in compliance with the global health targets, priority nations must have universal access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment by 2025.

Pricing and service delivery challenges

Despite the availability of affordable generic medicines for viral hepatitis, many countries struggle to get them at lower prices. Pricing disparities persist both across and within WHO regions, with some countries paying above global demands for essential drugs.

For impacted groups, service delivery is still frequently vertical and centralized. In addition, many people still find it challenging to pay for viral hepatitis services out of pocket.

Only 60% of reporting countries offer viral hepatitis testing and treatment services free of charge in the public sector, highlighting the need for improved financial protection, especially in regions like the WHO African Region.

Recommendations for Accelerating Hepatitis Elimination

The WHO's report outlines several key recommendations to accelerate progress towards ending the hepatitis epidemic by 2030. These include expanding access to testing and diagnostics, shifting from policies to implementation for reasonable treatment, and strengthening primary care prevention efforts.

It is also stressed that facilitating innovative financing, reducing product regulation and supply, and optimizing service delivery are crucial approaches. The suggested strategy also calls for involving impacted communities and civil society and increasing research for better hepatitis B diagnosis and possible treatments.

Funding Limitations

The report's requirements are not completely met by the funding for viral hepatitis, either globally or within specific national health budgets. These financing limitations are the cause of incompatible goals on global health agendas and a lack of knowledge on cost-saving initiatives and tools.

The study emphasizes how critical it is to resolve these gaps and provide access to resources at the lowest possible price. Developing investment cases in priority nations and employing creative finance methods to help hepatitis elimination initiatives are two methods to handle financial challenges.

(Input from various resources)

(Rehash/Susmita Bhandary/MSM)

Hepatitis B and C are responsible for the majority of these deaths, with hepatitis B causing 83% and hepatitis C causing 17%. (Representational image: Wikimedia commons)
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