Address by the Regional Director at the Global Event on World Hepatitis Day 2016

28 July 2016, Mumbai, India

Excellencies, distinguished luminaries on the dais, ladies and gentlemen,

Over the past 15 years public health authorities and governments have shown admirable focus in the battle against infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Remarkable progress has been made in controlling each one of these life-threatening conditions, with high-level efforts translating into broad public awareness of how to prevent, detect and treat them.

Under the Sustainable Development Goals the battle is set to continue: All three diseases are targeted for global elimination.

Indeed, we are living and working in an exciting time for disease control, and we look forward to moving ahead and achieving the goals set before us.

But even as we enter the final stages of what has been an epic battle against these major killers, our progress must not come at the expense of other public health concerns. The danger of thought-silos, of tunnel vision, and of a loss of perspective is real. And as history demonstrates, it can prove inimical to public health.

I make this point, ladies and gentleman, to underscore the ongoing tragedy that viral hepatitis represents, and the need – as public health advocates and practitioners – to keep it high on our agenda.

In the South-East Asia Region viral hepatitis kills approximately 350 000 people every year. It is responsible for more deaths in the Region than HIV and malaria combined, and is second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death.

Across South-East Asia, viral hepatitis is driving rates of liver cancer and cirrhosis and is a substantial contributor to premature morbidity and mortality. As some of you may be aware, India is particularly burdened, accounting for around 60% of the Region’s hepatitis-related deaths.

Evidently, viral hepatitis is not something we can afford to ignore. It is immensely encouraging, therefore, to see you gathered here to mark World Hepatitis Day.

Given that hepatitis is largely preventable, there is much that we can do to alleviate the burden.

Harm reduction programs can halt the spread of hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users. Safe practices related to injections, blood transfusions and other procedures can diminish the spread of hepatitis B and C among health care consumers. And the availability of hygienic and clean food and water can reduce the risk of hepatitis A and E infection among the public more generally.

Of particular note in the prevention of hepatitis B is the fact that we have at our disposal an extremely effective vaccine. By administering the vaccine within 24 hours of birth, followed by two to three doses in the first six months of life, mother-to-child transmission of the disease can be prevented.

This is very important: Children who acquire hepatitis perinatally are most likely to develop chronic Hepatitis B infection. And these chronically infected persons are also at great risk of developing cirrhosis or liver cancer.

In recent years political commitment to fight viral hepatitis has steadily crystallized. Whereas viral hepatitis was absent from the Millennium Development Goals, SDG 3.3 now includes specific mention of the need to strengthen efforts to combat the disease. In May this year the World Health Assembly approved a Global Health Sector Strategy on Hepatitis that calls for ending the problem by 2030.

The South-East Asia Region has developed its own action plan to address viral hepatitis, with countries now devising national action plans that can provide the strategies and infrastructure necessary to combat the disease effectively.

Alongside the creation and implementation of such plans, we are working on other key outcomes. These include:

First, reducing hepatitis seroprevalence among children under five to less than 1% by 2020. To do this, scaling up Hepatitis B vaccination at birth, followed by 2-3 doses of routine childhood vaccination, is essential.

Second, overcoming challenges in diagnosing hepatitis. WHO will soon issue new viral hepatitis testing guidelines that need to be rapidly adopted and implemented Region-wide.

And third, surmounting access-barriers to effective drugs such as tenofovir and the 12-week hepatitis C oral antiviral regimen. To this end, we are exceedingly fortunate to have India as a partner that we can rightly call the ‘pharmacy of the developing world’.

Excellencies and honourable guests, ladies and gentleman,

In the face of the acute public health challenge posed by viral hepatitis we now have hope. We have the means to prevent most hepatitis cases from occurring in the first place, and we have a range of powerful tools to treat the disease. In India it is encouraging to see prominent personalities from the film world lend their voice to spread awareness and work with policymakers to address and arrest this epidemic.

Given that effective tools and strategies for prevention and treatment are at our disposal, we cannot – and must not – accept the fact that hepatitis kills hundreds of thousands of people in our Region every year.

Indeed, let us use this World Hepatitis Day to open a new chapter in the Region-wide battle against hepatitis. I urge you all to go back to your ministries and departments; go back to your health facilities; go back to your media houses; and go back to your communities; and do your utmost to raise awareness of this ongoing tragedy and the need to take action against it.

Through commitment, determined action and the use of existing technologies, we can end hepatitis as a public health threat within the next 15 years. And we can do this at the same time as achieving other global disease control targets. In protecting and advancing public health, let our vision be grand and our horizon unlimited.

I thank you very much and wish you an inspiring World Hepatitis Day.