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PAHO Calls for Strengthening the Fight Against Hepatitis, a "Silent" Disease that Affects Millions of People in the Americas

“It is essential that people be informed about this health issue,” said singer and Champion of Health Jon Secada

Washington, D.C., 26 July 2012 (PAHO/WHO)—  The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) called on the countries of the Americas to redouble their efforts in the fight against viral hepatitis, a disease  about which many are unaware, which lacks public health measures for prevention and control, and which causes one million deaths worldwide each year.

Under the theme “It’s closer than you think,” PAHO/WHO commemorated World Hepatitis Day on 26 July with singer and PAHO Champion of Health Jon Secada, who has been very active in hepatitis C awareness campaigns in Hispanic communities in the United States. Secada, whose father recently died due to hepatitis C, said that “generating awareness of this health issue is one of the main things we must do,” since many people who are infected do not it.

 

“I wish I could have done more for my father,” said an emotional Secada. “I have learned a great deal about hepatitis, which he lived with for so many years. I know now what it is and many people do not. I will continue to be a spokesperson and to foster awareness of this issue,” he said. 

One out of 12 people worldwide suffers from one of five types of hepatitis. However, most people have not been diagnosed and are unaware that they have it, so they have not received treatment. “Everyone is at risk. Information and education as well as improvements in sanitary conditions and access to clean water and food are of fundamental importance, as is vaccination,” said Dr. Mirta Roses, Director of PAHO, during the event.

World Hepatitis Day “should remind us of the importance of hepatitis, its impact on individual and public health” and also “make it possible to take a solid step forward and gain the support and commitment of all the countries and partners in the Region to address this “pressing public health problem,” said Dr. Roses.

In June of this year, PAHO/WHO consulted with countries in the Region on a strategy and action plan on viral hepatitis that emphasize integrated prevention and control of the five types of hepatitis.

The Region faces challenges with regard to data collection and hepatitis prevention and control. Such data is needed to  “understand the disease and reach the populations that are at risk,” said Dr. Luis Gerardo Castellanos, Senior Advisor, Prevention & Control Communicable Diseases at PAHO/WHO. He added that there are also challenges in the areas of diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Steven Ault, Advisor, Parasitology and Neglected Diseases at PAHO, said that “there is hope” because there are many tools to help prevent and control the various forms of viral hepatitis.

Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by one of the five virus types known as A, B, C, D and E, which can cause illness, chronic disability, and even death. Hepatitis A and E are mainly transmitted through consumption of contaminated food or water. Types B, C, and D are mainly transmitted through blood and bodily fluids, including unsafe sexual practices.

Hepatitis B and C are particularly troubling since they cause 57% of liver cirrhosis cases and 78% of primary liver cancer cases worldwide. Between 7 and 9 million people are estimated to be infected by hepatitis C virus in the Americas. Prevention measures depend on the type of hepatitis and modes of transmission. Basic standards of hygiene, avoiding food and water that may be contaminated with the A or E virus, avoiding contact with contaminated blood or other bodily fluids, practicing safe sex, and not sharing syringes in order to avoid hepatitis B and C viruses are some recommended measures. Vaccination against hepatitis A and B is also recommended.

During the event, Deputy Director of PAHO, Dr. Jon Andrus, recognized Jon Secada with a plaque for actively working to call attention to the issue of hepatitis. Secada has collaborated with the American Liver Foundation to create awareness about the health consequences of hepatitis C, particularly in the Hispanic community in the United States.

“This plaque symbolizes your effort to draw public attention to hepatitis and our gratitude for your commitment to the health and the well-being of all families and communities in the Americas,” said Dr. Andrus.

Also shared at the event were successful hepatitis prevention and control experiences in the region:

  • In Argentina, introduction of the hepatitis A vaccine reduced the number of cases by 80% in five years.
  • Cuba showed different techniques used over the last 25 years to work toward eliminating hepatitis B.
  • In Jamaica, health authorities agreed to redouble efforts to improve diagnosis of hepatitis and information on these diseases.
  • Three countries (Argentina, Panama, and Uruguay) have integrated hepatitis A vaccination in their child immunization programs.
  • All the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have officially integrated hepatitis B vaccination in their child immunization programs.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean more than 99% of blood units donated are screened for hepatitis B and C.
In May 2010, the 63rd World Health Assembly designated 28 July as World Hepatitis Day in order to call attention to viral hepatitis as a threat to global health and to promote measures to address it.

In preparing for World Hepatitis Day this year, WHO released The Prevention and control of viral hepatitis infection: Framework for global action, which describes four areas of work to prevent and treat hepatitis: (1) raising awareness, promoting partnerships, and mobilizing resources, (2) evidence-based policy and data for action, (3) prevention of transmission, and (4) screening, care and treatment. This framework is intended to guide the work of countries confronting hepatitis. 

PAHO, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this year, is the oldest public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.

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