LAHORE - Over 400 million people worldwide are affected by viral hepatitis infection - over 10 times the number of people infected with HIV. Globally, about 1.4 million people die each year from hepatitis. It is estimated that only 5% of people with chronic hepatitis know of their infection, and less than 1% have access to treatment, according to World Health Organization.

An estimated 15 million people are infected with the hepatitis B and C virus in Pakistan. “The disease is continuously bulging. Hepatitis largely remains unknown as a health threat in much of the world. It is more prevalent particularly in the third world including Pakistan that makes it more alarming,” said Dr Qayyum Khan, Consultant Gastroenterologist, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre.

He was talking to a group of journalists in connection with World Hepatitis Day being observed on July 28 every year.

“A stringent method should be adopted to address the ‘silent killer’,” he stressed.

Viral hepatitis is also the leading cause of liver cancer. Liver cancer is the second biggest cancer killer and symptoms of viral hepatitis often go unnoticed. Therefore anyone who might think they may have been exposed should get tested, said Dr Qayyum.

“Viral hepatitis can be avoided. The known risks are unprotected sexual contact with an infected person with hepatitis B or C, sharing infected needles amongst drug users, and infected razors used in orthodox hair salons. Tainted blood and dirty needles of any kind can transmit these infections via blood into one’s body,” he added.

When asked about the treatment, the doctor said everybody deserves the chance to find out that if they have hepatitis B or C. Most probably treatment would be their option and in most cases something can be done to halt or control the infection. He suggested the people to get themselves and their children vaccinated for hepatitis B.

“There is no place for stigmatising people with hepatitis B and C. They cannot transmit the infection with casual contact like shaking hands and we must all play our part in fighting the parallel social stigmatization and discrimination against people with these infections so that there are no obstacles in the support they need in an effort to educate about, prevent and treat this huge epidemic,” Dr Khan concluded.

It may be noted that this year World Health Organization is observing World Hepatitis Day with the slogan “Know Hepatitis - Act Now” with the vision of eliminating hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030 can be achieved, if people and countries affected by this disease are better equipped and enabled to "know hepatitis" and "act now".