For World Hepatitis Day, which takes place on July 28, we spoke with Cary James, CEO of UK-based World Hepatitis Alliance, about the global burden of viral hepatitis, means of prevention and testing, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on hepatitis patients.
Please tell us more about the World Hepatitis Alliance, its tasks, and the role of patients within the organization.
The World Hepatitis Alliance (WHA) is a global network of over 300 organisations from 100 countries, dedicated to eliminating viral hepatitis. We represent the people and communities impacted by viral hepatitis. Our global board members all have lived experience of viral hepatitis, and people living with hepatitis are at the heart of everything we do. Without putting the people and communities impacted by hepatitis at the centre of the global hepatitis response, all efforts will fail. Our main mission is to harness the power of people living with viral hepatitis to achieve its elimination.
How big is the global burden of viral hepatitis, being one of the world’s leading causes of death?
More than 320 million people are living with viral hepatitis globally, with 1.1 million deaths caused by hepatitis-related illnesses every year. Two-thirds of all liver cancer deaths worldwide are caused by hepatitis B and C.
If nothing is done to combat hepatitis, by 2040 it will cause more deaths than HIV, TB and malaria combined.
Although the current numbers are daunting, with the vaccine and effective treatments for hepatitis B and the cure for hepatitis C we have all the tools we need to prevent, test and treat hepatitis and achieve the elimination of viral hepatitis within the next decade.
What needs to be done to achieve better prevention, testing and treatment or even elimination of hepatitis?
Ambitious targets were set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016 to see the elimination of hepatitis by 2030, including a 90% reduction in new cases of hepatitis B and C infections by 2030.
However, it won’t simply happen. Concerted efforts are needed to reach elimination and no one must be left behind. We need to raise more awareness of hepatitis and encourage people to come forward for testing. 290 million people are living with viral hepatitis unaware of their diagnosis; we need to find them and link them to care.
Health systems need to look to redevelop and become person-centred, working with and for their communities to make the health system accessible to all those that need it.
Currently only a handful of countries are on track to achieve elimination by 2030. There is a common thread across all of the countries on track. That is a strong civil society presence at all levels of planning and implementation of hepatitis elimination strategies coupled with the political will to act. Collaboration between governments, international organisations and the civil society is key. As well as putting the people affected by viral hepatitis at the heart of the solution.
Global funders also need to join the fight so that low- and middle-income countries can respond to the hepatitis crisis in their countries.
Which impact does/did the COVID-19 pandemic have on the lives of patients with hepatitis?
People living with hepatitis were left unable to access essential medicines during the pandemic; we also saw a drastic fall in testing availability.
We have also seen a drastic impact on the delivery of the hepatitis B birth dose vaccination. Modelling conducted by Imperial College London and WHO warned that, in a worst case scenario, the pandemic could cause an additional 5.3 million hepatitis infections and an additional 1 million hepatitis B related deaths later on.
The COVID-19 crisis has affected the availability of hepatitis services, impacting harm reduction services, testing availability, treatment access and vaccination delivery. Civil society organisations and other frontline hepatitis service providers have also seen their ability to raise awareness and fundraise impacted by the pandemic.
Civil society organisations are a key contributor to national hepatitis elimination programmes in many countries. A reduction in their capacity means there are fewer people being tested, and many people living with hepatitis are unable to access life-saving treatment.
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed many of the weaknesses in health systems around the world. It is our collective responsibility to learn from this crisis and to evolve health systems to better serve us all. Hepatitis elimination must not be left behind.
Are those patients more at risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection, and should they therefore get vaccinated or rather not (and why)?
The main global liver medical societies have advised that viral hepatitis is a serious underlying medical condition. People living with it might be at higher risk from severe case of COVID-19. They should speak to their medical provider about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as vaccination is available to them.
In 2021, the theme of World Hepatitis Day is “Hepatitis Can’t Wait”. Why?
Every 30 seconds, a person loses their life to a hepatitis-related illness. The “Hepatitis Can’t Wait” theme highlights the need to accelerate hepatitis elimination efforts, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside this, it also highlights the social injustice and inequity caused by the current lack of action on hepatitis elimination and focused on the action needed to get on track to meet our 2030 elimination goals. This campaign demands urgent action from all stakeholders and the general population to tackle hepatitis.
What has the World Hepatitis Alliance planned or already put to action concerning World Hepatitis Day on July 28?
The World Hepatitis Alliance has developed campaign resources, including posters, social media graphics and videos that people can use to raise awareness locally and on social media. We also have several events planned, including a webinar series and a global virtual relay, which will see the hepatitis community create a chain of video messages following World Hepatitis Day as it travels from New Zealand to Hawaii, showing the global community working to combat hepatitis.
Many thanks for your time and for the insights.