World Hepatitis Day highlights global scourge, hopes for treatment

By Jessica Berman

July 28th, 2014 (VOA) Hepatitis is one of the top four communicable diseases in the world, with someone contracting the potentially fatal liver condition every 10 seconds. Advocates are using World Hepatitis Day, Monday July 28, to draw attention to the disorder. They are optimistic that drugs – which can cure the viral disease – will become available to those who need them the most.

Hepatitis is spread through contaminated blood, IV drug abuse and sexual contact with an infected person.

Within the past year, medications that can cure the viral illness have come on the market. Untreated, the disease can fester, leading to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer, both of which are fatal.

But hepatitis no longer has to be a death sentence for the estimated 150 million people who are living with chronic infection, most of them in developing countries.

Ellie Barnes, an expert on hepatitis global prevalence, is with Britain’s University of Oxford in London.

“We’re in a place now, where I think certainly a few years ago, we didn’t imagine [where] we could be,” said Barnes.

Hepatitis treatment is straightforward. Depending on the viral strain, care could be as simple as bedrest or taking medicine. Access to drugs can be a problem for the millions suffering from the disease everywhere, however, particularly in developing countries.

Treatment with a short course of a new breakthrough drug costs upwards of $84,000 U.S. dollars.

“And it’s a responsibility for people who work in the field to find a way now to get these tablets [to people who need them]; because it’s literally a pill a day for twelve weeks,” said Barnes.

Yvonne Fuller, chief operating officer of Hepatitis Foundation International, said she is optimistic the cost of treatment will come down, and she noted another new hepatitis drug is being introduced worldwide at the end of this year.

Fuller said that’s especially important for individuals with hepatitis C, the type that most often becomes fatal.

“With competition, of course, it opens up the playing field for everyone … to access treatment and cure hepatitis C,” she said.

There is evidence that all varieties of hepatitis, which is more prevalent than HIV, can be cured with antiviral medications. And advocates express hope that drug manufacturers will in time make those drugs available at little or no cost to people who cannot otherwise afford them.

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