PAHO says Caribbean takes action to eliminate hepatitis

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WASHINGTON, Jul. 29, CMC – Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean, are taking action to eliminate viral hepatitis, although challenges remain in the detection and diagnosis of this disease, which can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death if not treated on time.
On World Hepatitis Day, July 28, PAHO said it  highlighted the commitment of its member states to eliminating this disease, while continuing to advocate for an organized response to prevention, detection and treatment for people who need it.
In the Americas, PAHO said an estimated 2.8 million people have chronic hepatitis B infection and an estimated 7.2 million have chronic hepatitis C infection.
Of the latter, PAHO said three out of every four people do not know that they are infected by the virus.
It is estimated that hepatitis B and C cause around 125,000 deaths each year––more deaths than are caused by tuberculosis and HIV infection combined, PAHO said.
“The countries of the Americas are making very great efforts to implement actions and policies that will lead to the elimination of hepatitis, especially preventing hepatitis B and curing hepatitis C,” said Massimo Ghidinelli, chief of the HIV, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, and Sexually Transmitted Infections unit at PAHO/WHO.
“However, it is a silent epidemic because infected people do not present symptoms until the liver has already been damaged. That is why it is important for the countries to step up efforts to reach the goal of eliminating hepatitis as a public health problem in the region by 2030,” he added.
According to a PAHO survey in May 2017, at least 21 of the 25 countries surveyed in the Region of the Americas have created frameworks within their Ministries of Health that are now addressing and implementing hepatitis response measures.
The region has also made major efforts in terms of vaccination against hepatitis B, PAHO said.
It said all countries vaccinate children under 1 year of age against hepatitis B, and 22 of those countries now do so within the first 24 hours of birth, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Furthermore, PAHO said 24 of the 31 countries surveyed in the Americas systematically monitor pregnant women for hepatitis.
Hepatitis B can be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth, among other ways, PAHO said.
However, it said newborn vaccination can prevent infection in 95 percent of cases, offering future generations lifelong protection against this infection.
Of the 7.2 million people living with chronic hepatitis C in the region, PAHO said only 300,000 (4 percent) receive treatment.
Although newly available treatments have the potential to cure over 90 percent of people infected with hepatitis C and reduce the risk of death due to liver cancer or cirrhosis, PAHO said they are still not accessible to everyone because of their high cost. Only 18 countries fund them, according to the PAHO report “Hepatitis B and C in the Spotlight”, published in January 2017.
In February 2017, the PAHO Strategic Fund  included high-cost medicines for the treatment of hepatitis C at affordable prices, giving the countries of the Americas access to the most effective options for hepatitis treatment––an initiative proposed by the countries of the region on different occasions.
The PAHO Strategic Fund is a collective mechanism for the pooled procurement of essential medicines and strategic health supplies for the countries of the region, PAHO said.
In 2015, it said Ministers of Health from throughout the Americas agreed on a series of actions – included in PAHO’s Regional Plan for Viral Hepatitis 2015-2019 – to prevent and control viral hepatitis infection, with an emphasis on hepatitis B and C.
PAHO said the global aim is to eliminate hepatitis as a public health problem by 2030.
Among other actions, PAHO said the plan calls on countries to create national plans, extend vaccination against hepatitis B to all children under 1-year-old and to high-risk and vulnerable population groups, conduct information campaigns, and seek ways to expand access to medicines.
This year’s slogan for World Hepatitis Day was “Eliminate Hepatitis” – a call to step up actions to reach the health targets set in the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
The health body launched a campaign that includes infographics, videos and social media to provide information on hepatitis prevention and treatment.

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