Third of World's People Infected With Hepatitis: WHO

Upwards of 2 billion people -- or one-third of the global population -- has had hepatitis, World Health Organization experts said at a press conference held Tuesday ahead of the first-ever World Hepatitis Day, July 28. WHO cautions that most infected with hepatitis are unaware and unknowingly passing it on to others through contaminated water and food, blood, semen and other bodily fluids.

"This is a chronic disease across the whole world, but unfortunately there is very little awareness, even among health policy-makers, of its extent," said WHO hepatitis specialist Steven Wiersma.

WHO has started World Hepatitis Day as a way to bolster public knowledge of the disease and its five primary viruses -- A, B, C, D and E -- and the "staggering toll" they are wreaking on health care worldwide, said Wiersma. Hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer.

The most prevalent hepatitis virus is B, which may pass from mother to child during labor or in infancy, as well as through unclean needles, said WHO. The E virus, endemic to developing countries, is spread through contaminated water and food.

Although vaccines exist for hepatitis A and B that also may be used to fight D, WHO advises the vaccine for E is scarce, and none exists for C. Programs promoting vaccinations have made strides in several countries, and WHO reports about 180 of its 193 member-states offer the hepatitis B vaccine in infant immunization programs.

However, WHO said testing is paramount to rein in the disease and prevent its spread, in addition to immediately administering quality treatment.