A fresh look at hepatitis outbreaks across the globe show the number of those infected with the disease is skyrocketing among drug abusers. The new discovery has prompted an outcry among health advocates warning that governments must tackle the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease or the effort to save millions of lives will be wasted.
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood borne infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers, working on a new global health report for the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, reported last week there are more drug users infected with hepatitis than previously thought because much of the research focus is directed toward HIV.
Their report warns that the growing number of hepatitis cases has created a new threat to public health.
“Maintenance and strengthening of the response to HIV in injecting drug users remains crucial, but the significance of viral hepatitis needs to receive greater attention than it does at present," according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
The first worldwide report on the disease reveal that ten million drug users are infected with hepatitis C, while 1.3 million have hepatitis B.
Breaking it down, new reports show numbers of those diagnosed with hepatitis in the largest populations are increasing daily. Today, there are 1.6 million infected in China, about 1.5 million in the United States, and 1.3 million in Russia, according to medical researchers published in The Lancet medical journal.
Medical experts say only a fraction of those infected are receiving antiviral drugs. This is mainly because many do not know they have the disease.
Those who are advocating for change in the perceptions associated with hepatitis say governments must start delivering better improvements in awareness, surveillance, prevention, and diagnosis and treatment of viral hepatitis.
The World Hepatitis Alliance also published research this week that found less than one third of all governments fund action to reduce the stigma and discrimination against people living with hepatitis.
Another report by the Australian Institute of Health shows that the levels of risky alcohol use remain unchanged as illicit drug use has increased.
Heroin continues to be the drug most associated with “a drug problem,” followed by cannabis. But there was also a small rise in community tolerance of regular cannabis use, researchers said.
“The high numbers of those infected with hepatitis is largely attributable to needle sharing during the 1970s and 1980s, before the risks of blood borne viruses were widely known and before educational initiatives were implemented,” the CDC said in a statement.
It can also spread through sex with an infected person and from mother to baby during childbirth.
Hepatitis viruses come in five forms: A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis D and E are less common, according to the CDC.
Sixty to 70 percent of those newly infected with hepatitis typically are usually asymptomatic or have a mild clinical illness.
In many cases, hepatitis has no symptoms, so infected people pass it onto others without knowing. About 80,000 new infections occur each year in the United States, according to the CDC.
The majority of infected persons might not be aware of their infection because it mimics a typical illness and the continued stigma attached to the disease prompts secrecy resulting in no treatment.
However, infected persons serve as a source of transmission to others and are at risk for chronic liver disease or other hepatitis-related chronic diseases decades after infection.
Hepatitis E is a waterborne disease, and contaminated water or food supplies have been implicated in major outbreaks. Consumption of fecal contaminated drinking water has given rise to recent epidemics, and the ingestion of raw or uncooked shellfish has been the source of sporadic cases across the world.
About 40 million people in India are infected with Hepatitis B and the risk of its transmission is hundred times more than that of the dreaded HIV, health officials warned this week.
Chronically infected people are at high risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
For more information about hepatitis visit: http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/