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WHO says children at risk of new ‘unexplained acute hepatitis’ outbreak

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the world is currently facing a new outbreak of “unexplained acute hepatitis infections” affecting children.

WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus gave the warning on Thursday in his message to mark this year’s World Hepatitis Day, globally observed on July 28 annually.

The aim of the Day is to raise global awareness of hepatitis — a group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E — and encourage prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

According to the WHO chief, the current uptick focuses attention on the thousands of acute viral hepatitis infections that occur every year among children, adolescents and adults.

“WHO, together with scientists and policy makers in affected countries, are working to understand the cause of this infection that does not appear to belong to any of the known five types of hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D and E.’’

He said while the world has the guidance and tools to diagnose, treat, and prevent chronic viral hepatitis, these services are often out of reach for communities and are sometimes only available at centralised or specialised hospitals.

“To be most effective, hepatitis care must be delivered in communities through strong primary healthcare and integrated with other health services that address the full range of health needs,” Ghebreyesus said.

Although most acute infections cause mild disease and even go undetected, some can lead to complications and turn fatal.

In 2019 alone, complications of acute hepatitis A to E infections caused an estimated 78,000 deaths worldwide.

Unlike acute viral hepatitis, B, C and D cause chronic disease, which lasts for several decades, culminating in over one million deaths per year from cirrhosis and liver cancer. And they are responsible for over 95 per cent of hepatitis deaths.

“Every 30 seconds, someone dies from hepatitis-related diseases, including liver failure, cirrhosis and cancer,” the WHO chief said.

Moreover, some 80 per cent of people living with the disease are unable to access or afford care.

With the goal of eliminating hepatitis by 2030, the UN health agency has called on countries to reach four specific targets.

It aims to reduce new infections of hepatitis B and C by 90 per cent; reduce hepatitis-related deaths from liver cirrhosis and cancer by 65 per cent; ensure that at least 90 per cent of people with hepatitis B and C virus are diagnosed; and at least 80 per cent of those eligible, receive appropriate treatment.

WHO is calling on all governments and partners to “scale up the use of effective tools” against the potentially deadly disease.

World Hepatitis Day aims to raise awareness of viral hepatitis, which causes inflammation of the liver that leads to severe disease and liver cancer.

It also offers an opportunity to step up national and international efforts on the infection, encourage individuals, partners and the public to act, and highlights the need for a greater global response, as outlined in the WHO’s Global hepatitis report of 2017.

In 2022, WHO is highlighting the importance of bringing hepatitis care closer to primary health facilities and communities for better access treatment, no matter the type of hepatitis.

The July 28 date was chosen because it is the birthday of Nobel-prize winning scientist Baruch Blumberg, who discovered hepatitis B virus (HBV), and developed a diagnostic test and vaccine for the virus.


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