WHO Regional Committee meetings see regions commit to tackling viral hepatitis

23 Oct 2015 Bridie Taylor

Despite viral hepatitis impacting almost every country in the world, the burden differs significantly from region to region. In order to achieve global elimination of hepatitis, it is crucial that efforts are adapted to suit regional needs. Every year WHO Regional Offices convene Committee Meetings to discuss the most pressing public health issues in their region and agree on actions to move forward. Following the World Hepatitis Summit, viral hepatitis featured high on the agenda at many of the regional meetings.

WHO Regional Committee for Europe: Vilnius, Lithuania, 14-17 September

The 65th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe provided a platform for Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of the WHO HIV/AIDS Department and Global Hepatitis Programme, to present the draft Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis and the proposed global targets to European Member States. Following the presentation WHA President Charles Gore led an intervention in which he commended WHO for developing the strategy, but noted that the proposed global targets are not sufficiently ambitious. WHA also used the opportunity to stress the need for Europe to develop and implement a regional Action Plan of its own. With the burden of viral hepatitis in Europe disproportionally affecting marginalised and vulnerable populations, such as migrants and people who inject drugs, it is crucial that Europe identifies its own targets and interventions, following the lead of regions like the Western Pacific, which already has such an Action Plan. “Europe must not lag behind simply because many of its affected populations are marginalised,” emphasised Charles Gore, “On the contrary, this should be a spur to rapid action, since the Global Health Sector Strategy has a strong focus on addressing health inequities in viral hepatitis.” Following the Committee meeting, we have received news that the WHO European Office has drafted a concept note for a regional Action Plan.

WHO Regional Committee for the Americas: Washington D.C., USA, 28 September – 2 October

In the Americas region, 20 million people live with hepatitis B or C and approximately 3% of all deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean are caused by viral hepatitis and its complications. Responding to the increasing need to tackle this epidemic in the region, viral hepatitis was a key topic on the agenda at the 67th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Americas. At the Regional Committee meeting the 54th Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) agreed to a comprehensive regional action plan to prevent and control viral hepatitis in the region. The Plan for Action for the Prevention and Control of Viral Hepatitis 2016-2019, to which WHA actively contributed to at the regional consultation in April 2015, asks governments to develop and implement national plans which include the integration of prevention, surveillance, treatment and control into health systems, expand coverage of hepatitis B vaccination, and ensure governments run awareness campaigns including acknowledging World Hepatitis Day. The adoption of a regional strategy for the Americas region signifies an important step forward in the prevention and control of hepatitis and follows a heightened level of interest and commitment, which pioneering events such as the World Hepatitis Summit is undoubtedly encouraging.

WHO Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean: Kuwait City, Kuwait, 5-8 October

With an estimated 170 million people infected with hepatitis B and 17 million with hepatitis C, the Eastern Mediterranean region has one of the highest burdens of viral hepatitis in the world. As momentum to tackle the epidemic builds, hepatitis was discussed at length during the 62nd session of the Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt, a country with one of the world’s highest burdens of hepatitis C and a commendable level of commitment to tackle this, delivered a presentation on the current situation and the progress being made to improve treatment access. This was followed by interventions from 10 countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Islamic Republic of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Djibouti. Acknowledging countries’ concerns over the affordability of treatment, the Regional Adviser advised that WHO would provide support to countries in negotiating lower prices but this process is likely to be more difficult in higher income countries. The importance of preventing hepatitis transmission and raising awareness of the risks was also stressed.

WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific: Guam, United States of America, 12-16 October

Despite the fact that only a quarter of the world’s population live in the Western Pacific region, it bears 40% of global deaths from viral hepatitis, with more than 1,500 lives lost each day. On the second day of the 66th session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, Member States recognised the increasing need to tackle hepatitis within the region and approved the Regional Action Plan for Viral Hepatitis 2016-2020. WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-soo thanked Member States for assisting in the development of the plan and stated that “with the success of hepatitis B vaccination over the past 15 years, now is the time to move to the next phase in addressing hepatitis and to provide access to timely diagnosis and treatment for the hundreds of millions living with the often devastating consequences of chronic viral hepatitis.” The region has had significant success in fighting hepatitis B thanks to immunization efforts, with the region having met the 2012 milestone of less than 2% chronic hepatitis B prevalence among 5 year old children. 12 countries in the region have also already reached the 2017 target of prevalence at less than 1%. The newly adopted Regional Action Plan goes beyond immunization and includes tools for improved screening, care and treatment. During the session 18 Member States voiced their support for the Action Plan, although stressed that the high price of hepatitis C drugs is still a significant barrier to tackling the disease. Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of the WHO HIV/AIDS Department and Global Hepatitis Programme, drew the session to a close by highlighting the World Hepatitis Summit for its role in assisting countries develop and implement national hepatitis strategies.

The WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia region was held 7-11 September in Timor, Dili, Timor-Leste. Viral hepatitis did not make it onto the agenda. The dates for WHO Regional Committee for the African region will take place in N'Djamena, Chad, from 23 to 27 November 2015.