The new report, “Hepatitis B and C in the Spotlight: A public health response in the Region of the Americas 2016,” estimates that about 2.8 million people have chronic hepatitis B virus infection and about 7.2 million have hepatitis C virus.
Of these, PAHO said three of every four persons do not know they have the infection, which can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death if not treated on time.
“Hepatitis is a silent epidemic because people who have the infections do not have symptoms until there is damage to the liver, and because the burden of the disease has not been fully recognised,” said Massimo Ghidinelli, chief of PAHO’s HIV, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis and Sexually Transmitted Infections unit. “Informing people about these diseases and ways to prevent them is crucial.
“With this report, we began to visualise the actual disease situation in the region, and we provide tools for the countries so they can make informed decisions to guide their policies in this area, especially now that interventions are available for the prevention of hepatitis B and to cure hepatitis C,” Ghidinelli said.
PAHO said Hepatitis B and C are estimated to cause about 125,000 deaths each year, more deaths than tuberculosis and HIV infection combined.
The report shows that, of the 7.2 million people living with chronic hepatitis C in the region, only four per cent, or 300,000, receive treatment.
In addition, an estimated 65,000 people are infected every year with hepatitis C, the report says.
Although new treatments available have the potential to cure about 90 per cent of people infected with hepatitis C, and reduce the risk of death due to liver cancer or cirrhosis, they are still not accessible to all because of their high cost, and only 19 countries fund them, the report says.
PAHO said Hepatitis B can be transmitted from mother to child at delivery, among other ways, but it said vaccination of all newborns can prevent infection in 95 per cent of cases, and protect future generations from contracting this infection throughout their lives.
According to the report, all countries in the region vaccinate children under one year of age against hepatitis B, but 31 per cent do not do so within the first 24 hours of birth, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The report also reveals that, in 2014, 15 countries in the region performed about 18,100 liver transplants. However, the vast majority of them, 82 per cent, were done in the United States.
In 2015, PAHO said the Ministers of Health of the Americas agreed on a series of measures to prevent and control viral hepatitis infection through the PAHO Regional Plan for Viral Hepatitis 2015-2019, with emphasis on hepatitis B and C.
PAHO said the global goal is to end hepatitis as a public health problem by 2030.