World Hepatitis Day was observed on Sunday, July 28th. For India, it was an opportunity to remember a major but often overlooked threat to public health.
Viral hepatitis – which the World Health Organization classifies as “one of the leading killers worldwide” – affects almost sixty million Indians and kills 1.5 lakh people in the country annually. According to the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS), hepatitis B alone affects four crore Indians whilst approximately 1.2 crore are afflicted with hepatitis C. Multiple Indian states have been classed as high-risk areas for infection with hepatitis E.
Many regard hepatitis as equitable in terms of impact to the “Big Three” infectious conditions – HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. However, numerous issues frustrate efforts to combat the disease in India. Diagnosis rates are low, with fewer than ten percent of hepatitis-infected individuals in India aware of their condition. “Fighting hepatitis is difficult because both hepatitis B and C are chronic infections that often remain dormant in the body for years before damaging the liver,” says Dr S. K. Sarin, director of ILBS.
To raise awareness of hepatitis, routes of transmission, signs and symptoms, and marginalisation of patients, the ILBS organised an event entitled the ‘EMPATHY Concave 2019: Empowering People Against Hepatitis’ to coincide with World Hepatitis Day. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan attended the event, stating “like we did it against polio with a mass and sustained campaign, we can do it against hepatitis too. It may seem to be a herculean task, but it is certainly not impossible.” Other attendees included Speaker of the Lok Sabha Om Birla and Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, both of whom called for a campaign to rid India of hepatitis.
Speaking at the event, Dr Sarin said “only preventive screenings to high risk individuals such as those who have undergone dialysis or blood transfusions can identify dormant infections and treat them on time…misconceptions and stigma attached to the disease often leads to marginalization and discrimination against patients. Our fight against the disease must focus on multiple fronts — prevention of hepatitis B through universal vaccination, identifying and treating patients through screenings and providing psychosocial support to patients.”
As highlighted by Dr Sarin, one of the major challenges is discrimination. The ILBS has previously called for the Centre to enact a law banning discrimination against those with hepatitis, akin to similar legislation banning discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS. The ILBS-organised conclave sought to further this goal by making policymakers and influencers aware of the significant burden of the disease in India and the plight of the crores of the individuals whose lives are affected. The hope is that, after World Hepatitis Day, such campaigns will continue on a sustained footing and their results will manifest in public health policy and government action against the disease.