On World Hepatitis Day, Millions to Hear Messages of Testing and Treatment, not Stigma

Viral hepatitis is a devastating, but often preventable infectious disease that can be caused by several different viruses. One in four people with HIV in the U.S. also have hepatitis C. In addition, adults at risk for HIV infection may also be at elevated risk for hepatitis B infection due to shared modes of transmission.

Since 2010, the World Hepatitis Alliance and World Health Organization (WHO) have hosted World Hepatitis Day on July 28 to encourage testing and treatment across the globe. This year, the hashtag #4000voices will reach networks of over 23,000,000 people in a global campaign to raise awareness of viral hepatitis. This global community will give a voice to the 4,000 people who die every day from this curable illness.

Hepatitis is a stigmatizing condition in many cultures, making people reluctant to come forward with their status. According to the World Hepatitis Alliance, 25% of patients are hesitant to share their status even with close friends and family. Yet most people with viral hepatitis don't even know they are infected. In the U.S., as many as 4 million people are estimated to have hepatitis C, but more than half are not aware of their infection as it can take years or even decades for symptoms to develop. For this reason, the WHO encourages people from all walks of life to get tested.

There are five major strains of viral hepatitis (A, B, C, D and E) -- collectively they afflict 400 million people worldwide. All strains of viral hepatitis cause inflammation and damage to the liver, and hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer. Viral hepatitis spreads in much the same way as HIV -- through the sharing of needles and razors, or reusing medical equipment, via unscreened blood transfusions, unprotected sex and mother to child transmission.

Some strains (A, B and E) can be prevented with vaccination. One strain, hepatitis C, can now be cured with safe antiviral drugs without the need for interferon (a drug rife with side effects). However, these new drugs are expensive and out of reach for most patients.

Despite the scientific progress made in developing vaccinations and cures, infections still run rampant in all corners of the globe. For example, Egypt has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C of any country in the world, with an estimated 14.7% of the population afflicted. In China, liver cancer (usually caused by hepatitis B), is a leading cause of death.

According to the WHO, all strains of hepatitis can be prevented. Vaccination can prevent hepatitis A, B and E. Safe and clean sources of water and food can also halt the spread of hepatitis A and E. In addition, to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and B -- the two most prevalent strains -- public health officials recommend screening blood prior to transfusion and providing sterile needles to injection drug users. Yet prevention efforts remain inadequate in poor countries and wealthy countries alike.

Even celebrities are participating in the #4000voices campaign. Actor Stephen Frey and entrepreneur Richard Branson have chimed in, adding their voices to the over 23,000,000 people who have joined the conversation. With the #4000voices, World Hepatitis Day hopes to educate societies about the devastation viral hepatitis can bring, and hopefully, save lives.