An estimated 325 million people are infected with hepatitis B or C and few are aware of their condition, with the number of people dying from the viruses rising, the World Health Organization warned Friday.
Hepatitis killed 1.34 million people in 2015, a toll roughly in-line with HIV and tuberculosis, the UN agency said in its latest report, which identified the condition as a grave public health threat that needs an “urgent response.”
But while HIV and TB deaths are falling, hepatitis deaths are on the rise, WHO said, recording a 22 percent mortality rise from 2000 to 2014.
For hepatitis B — which is spread through bodily fluids like blood and semen — only nine percent of those infected know their status.
And for hepatitis C, primarily spread through blood, just 20 percent of those infected are aware of their condition.
Hepatitis is often symptom free, but types B and C can trigger liver cirrhosis and cancer if untreated.
Lack of access to testing and treatment leaves “millions of people at risk of a slow progression to chronic liver disease, cancer and death”, WHO said in a statement.
The hepatitis B problem is most acute in the WHO’s Western Pacific Region, which includes China, Malaysia and southeast Asia. An estimated 115 million people in the region have the virus.
Second worst is Africa, with 60 million hepatitis B cases.
An effective vaccine exists for hepatitis B.
WHO’s latest data shows that hepatitis C — for which there is no vaccine — is most commonly spread through unsafe healthcare procedures and injection drug use.
Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region are afflicted with the most hepatitis C cases at 14 million and 15 million respectively.
Gottfried Hirnschall, director of WHO’s Department of HIV and the Global Hepatitis Program, said the WHO was working with governments, drugmakers and diagnostics companies to improve access.
“More countries are making hepatitis services available for people in need – a diagnostic test costs less than $1 and the cure for hepatitis C can be below $200,” he said. “But the data clearly highlight the urgency with which we must address the remaining gaps in testing and treatment.”