Across the world, liver cancer rates are on the rise. Liver cancer is the third most common cancer death and over 70% of cases are caused by chronic viral hepatitis. Sadly, every 30 seconds, someone dies of hepatitis, yet these deaths are preventable. For hepatitis B, we have a vaccine and effective treatments, and for hepatitis C we have very effective cures.
World Hepatitis Day is celebrated on 28th July each year and brings the opportunity to raise our voices to fight this hidden epidemic and to support the people and communities impacted. This year’s theme, ”Hepatitis Can’t Wait”, speaks to the need for urgent action on hepatitis. Nine in ten people living with the disease are unaware of their diagnosis, meaning people are getting diagnosed too late. Awareness-raising is lifesaving when it comes to hepatitis.
In 2016, the 192 countries of the World Health Organization committed to eliminating hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030, yet very few countries are on track to achieve this goal. In nearly every country, hepatitis programmes are underfunded, under prioritised and the communities that need them are underserved.
I was diagnosed with hepatitis B while I was in college and remember being concerned about what this meant for my life. I count myself very fortunate that I was able to continue my studies to become a physician and did not face the stigma and discrimination which has limited the futures of many living with hepatitis. When I was pregnant, I was very concerned about passing on the infection to my children. This mother-to-child transmission is the most common source of hepatitis B infection worldwide. Yet it is entirely preventable – if we tested pregnant women, provided hepatitis care and vaccinated all babies, the next generation would be completely hepatitis B free.
I was lucky enough to get the care I needed and all of my children received the hepatitis B birth dose vaccine. I am so relieved that my four children are free of the infection. They will not have the lifelong struggle of getting hepatitis care and worrying about spreading the infection or developing liver cancer or cirrhosis. But millions of mothers cannot say the same. Mothers worldwide face the burden of guilt of passing on hepatitis B to their children at birth because they were unable to access testing, vaccine or treatment, and their children will live with hepatitis for the rest of their lives.
This injustice is made starker by the hepatitis B vaccine being available for decades and at less than US$ 0.20. It is one of the most effective and affordable weapons we have in our fight against hepatitis, yet access to it remains inequitable. Currently, only 42% of babies have access to the hepatitis B birth dose, leading to a preventable tragedy and a grave social injustice. The reality is that the world’s poorest communities are left to carry the most significant burden of hepatitis, and we, as a global community, are allowing the long shadow of hepatitis to be cast on the future of all their newborns.
With liver cancer on the rise worldwide, we cannot wait to act on hepatitis. We can and must eliminate viral hepatitis across the world by 2030 and, to do so, we must urgently provide the testing, prevention and treatment tools we have to those who need it the most.
You can join us on World hepatitis Day at www.worldhepatitisday.org.
Liver Cancer Can’t Wait.