How to aid the fight against Asia-Pacific's 'silent killer'

A nurse gives a Hepatitis B vaccination to a patient at the Korea-Afghanistan Friendship Medical Center in Parwan, Afghanistan. Asia-Pacific is vulnerable to viral hepatitis, with 74 percent of all the people infected with hepatitis B. Photo by: Sarah Martinez / NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan / CC BY-SA

Despite global health's remarkable progress over the last few years, particularly in medicine and treatment, the rise and persistence of an increasingly resistant and viral disease continue to stunt Asia-Pacific’s development.

Unlike HIV and AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis — which have been subjects of major aid programs —  viral hepatitis still remains largely trapped in the shadows of the post-2015 agenda.

Large-scale initiatives to combat this infection of the liver that can be fatal if left untreated still lack the necessary push despite affecting over 500 million people worldwide, and this why an international advocacy group is calling for not just more money but a new funding mechanism for prevention and treatment.

“The last decade has witnessed significant breakthroughs in the development of effective medicines for chronic hepatitis ... [but] only half of the countries in Asia-Pacific make publicly-funded treatment available,” Stephen Locarnini, secretary of the Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia-Pacific, told Devex. “Funding issues present a significant barrier to the ability of governments to implement lasting measures to reduce the burden of disease.”

He added: “[We] believe an international funding mechanism is urgently needed to support efforts to combat viral hepatitis in low income countries... We are urging the international donor community as well as multilateral humanitarian NGOs to step forward and join the efforts.”

Asia-Pacific is particularly vulnerable to the disease, with 74 percent of all people infected with hepatitis (B) — often transmitted through blood-to-blood contact or unsafe intercourse — living in the region, where over a million people die every year from the disease.

Putting more focus

Unlike HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, viral hepatitis remains on the fringes of development discussions.

An regional alliance has been established along with a trust fund to fight and eradicate malaria, while the Global Fund was established to combat the previous three diseases globally.

Locarnini admitted that the fight to prevent and eradicate viral hepatitis is still in its “infancy stage”, making it clear the disease is “not receiving the same level of attention, resources or investment in cross-sector partnerships,” and highlighting the need to put more focus to the issue.

Intentions to seriously address the disease are there — in particular with the creation of an independent viral hepatitis unit within the World Health Organization — but more needs to be done and that is action and collaboration.

“The global response has built momentum, but to date, action in [the region] has largely been slow and uncoordinated, with very few cross-sector partnerships to support national or regional efforts to combat viral hepatitis,” the CEVHAP official said. “It's important to address viral hepatitis from both [regional and national] perspectives,” Locarnini noted.

Role of aid

Only half — or even less — of Asia-Pacific governments have national strategies for addressing hepatitis, with the majority coming from the low- and middle-income categories — and that's where much more help is needed.

“The aid and development community are critically important to the fight to eradicate viral hepatitis in Asia Pacific. One of the major barriers to combating viral hepatitis is the fact that the highest disease burden is often found in countries that can least afford the resources needed to tackle these disease,” Locarnini explained.

He concluded: “In some countries this is a reflection of the need for strengthened technical assistance, but for many low- and middle-income countries it is symptomatic of the fact that funding remains the largest barrier to the strengthening of public policy.”

“Cross-sector partnerships are crucially important to mobilizing expertise but also to unlocking the resources needed to tackle viral hepatitis.”

Infographic by CEVHAP. Click here to view the larger version.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.