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Most People with Hepatitis Don't Know It

A nurse vaccinates a child against hepatitis to prevent disease in Constitucion, Chile. (REUTER 2010)
A nurse vaccinates a child against hepatitis to prevent disease in Constitucion, Chile. (REUTER 2010)
400 Million Live with Hepatitis
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From VOA Learning English this is the Health & Lifestyle Report.

The first-ever World Hepatitis Summit was held in September of this year in Glasgow, Scotland. Health experts estimate that about 400 million people are infected with the viral disease.

Viral hepatitis infections kill nearly 1 million people a year. The majority of cases are in Asia and in African countries south of the Sahara.

A vaccine and treatment for some forms of hepatitis are now available. But whether patients have enough money to pay for treatments is a different story.

The World Health Organization says high cost of drugs is one big problem in fighting hepatitis. Another problem is the fact that most people living with hepatitis do not know they are infected.

Hepatitis explained

There are five different hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D and E. All five cause inflammation of the liver. The organ can become enlarged and painful.

Hepatitis A, E and D

Hepatitis A and E are spread through infectious waste in food or water. These forms of the disease cause acute infection. However, most people recover. The best way to prevent Hepatitis A is by getting a vaccination. But the U.S. Federal Drug Agency has yet to approve a vaccine for Hepatitis E.

Hepatitis E is usually found in countries with polluted water supplies and poor waste treatment systems. Hepatitis D only infects people already infected with the B virus.

World Hepatitis Alliance infographic
World Hepatitis Alliance infographic

Hepatitis B and C are a different story

Hepatitis B and C can be the most serious. Those two types are responsible for 80 percent of all liver cancer deaths.

Dr. Stefan Wiktor is the Team Lead of the World Health Organization's Global Hepatitis Program. He says hepatitis B and C are also different from the other types in how they are spread.

“Hepatitis B and C are transmitted by blood. So that means from a mother to a child; through blood transfusions or through injections. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted by sex. So, there are different routes of transmission.”

You can get hepatitis B from sexual contact or by sharing drug-injection equipment. The best way to prevent Hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. Hepatitis B is common worldwide, especially in many parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands.

With hepatitis C, most people become infected by sharing instruments like needles. The majority of infected persons with hepatitis C might not know they are infected because they do not feel sick. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease.

Available treatments

Dr. Wiktor says there are ways to prevent all types of hepatitis.

“Luckily, we have ways to prevent all of them. There's a great vaccine for Hepatitis B that is effective for life. And there are treatments for both B and C. So, there are now in hand means of preventing and treating both infections. So, really, this is a time to act and that’s really the point of this summit.”

Not so long ago, treating Hepatitis C was difficult with a very low recovery rate. Now, people are able to be cured completely of the virus. Dr. Wiktor considers this a major development.

“One of the most remarkable advances in the development of medicines is the development of treatments for hepatitis C. Until recently, it was very difficult to cure. It required weekly injections and only half the people who started the medicines were cured. Now, the medicines are about 12 weeks of treatment. One pill a day and almost everyone is cured. And cured means the virus is gone from their body.”

Although a vaccine and treatments are available, says Dr. Wiktor, not everyone in need can get them. He says this is a big problem. The Global Hepatitis Program says that about 240 million people are infected with chronic hepatitis B. And anywhere between 130 and 150 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C.

“The problem has been that these medicines are very expensive. In the U.S., for example, they cost more than $100,000 to treat one person just for the medicines. Luckily, the lower income countries have been able to get these same medicines at (a) much lower price. But a lot more has to happen to make these drugs affordable.”

One of the goals of the recent summit was to urge countries to develop national hepatitis treatment and prevention programs.

The WHO says people need to be aware how the disease spreads and how to treat it. If left untreated, hepatitis kills slowly. It can take 10 or more years for the virus to destroy the liver.

I’m Anna Matteo.

VOA’s Joe DeCapua wrote this report. Anna Matteo adapted it and added original reporting for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Word in This Story

chronicadj. medical continuing for a long time; long-term

transmit v. to cause (a virus, disease, etc.) to be given to others

blood transfusion A blood transfusion is a safe, common procedure in which blood is given to you through an intravenous (IV) line in one of your blood vessels.

contaminate v. to make (something) dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it

remarkable adj unusual or surprising : likely to be noticed

advancesn. progress in the development or improvement of something

injection n. the act or process of forcing a liquid medicine or drug into someone or something by using a special needle