In an effort to increase awareness about hepatitis, the World Health Organization (WHO) marked July 28 as the first World Hepatitis Day. The campaign is particularly crucial in Southeast Asia, which has been hit hard by the disease, according to an editorial published in AsiaOne and written by Samlee Plianbangchang, MD, MPH, DrPH, the regional director of WHO South-East Asia. Hepatitis—in all its strains—kills more people in Southeast Asia than any other infectious disease, with an anticipated death toll of 5 million during the next 10 years.

More than 100 million people in the region are infected with hepatitis B, while 30 million carry hepatitis C—and 60 percent don’t know they’re infected until the disease develops into cirrhosis or incurable liver cancer. These blood-borne strains are often transmitted through improperly screened blood—it’s not unusual for local health care providers to check for HIV but not hepatitis—or through needle sharing by injection drug users.

Each year, another 6.5 million Southeast Asians contract hepatitis E—half the total cases worldwide—with an estimated annual death rate of 160,000. Pregnant women are at especially high risk of hepatitis E, which can lead to premature birth, low birth weight and stillbirth or infant mortality. Hepatitis A and E are both spread by consuming contaminated food and water.

Lack of information about hepatitis and lack of appropriate medical resources on the part of health care workers and providers hamstring efforts in Southeast Asia to deal with the disease. Governments in the region need to take steps to rectify the problem.

The WHO hopes to use World Hepatitis Day to spread awareness about the disease—including how to recognize symptoms and prevent infection. Plianbangchang’s recommendations include:

  • Focus on prevention; the spread of these diseases can be greatly limited through simple techniques such as washing hands, boiling drinking water, cooking food and using condoms and sterile needles.
  • Implement mandatory screening of blood products for hepatitis B and C.
  • Implement mandatory childhood immunization against hepatitis B, which is 95 percent effective.
  • Educate health care workers—and the public—about hepatitis risk factors and symptoms.