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Infectious Diseases

What COVID-19 Teaches Us About Infectious Diseases and What We Can Learn from Viral Hepatitis

Dr Su Wang, M.D., MPH., FACP

President, World Hepatitis Alliance

COVID-19 has spread across continents and countries. We are seeing unprecedented global attention focused on one disease, leading to drastic actions to limit its spread and reduce its death toll. 

Too many lives will still be lost and the effects of the pandemic will be visible for years. What’s remarkable is the singular focus of governments, scientists, and the healthcare sector to combat COVID-19 and overwhelming response.

Many are already all too familiar with the devastating impact of global infectious diseases. For example, viral hepatitis is the world’s second deadliest infectious disease, affecting more than 325 million people worldwide and claiming 1.4 million lives each year – more than HIV and malaria combined. Yet unlike COVID-19, public awareness is shockingly low and the global response is paltry.  

The strategies being used for COVID-19 are already the same for many other diseases, including viral hepatitis — identification (screening), containment (prevention), and treatment. But it is the urgency of action that makes COVID-19 stand out, due to the nature of the many unknowns about its transmission, natural course, and effective treatments or vaccines.  

In contrast, we know how viral hepatitis is transmitted, and have the diagnostic tools to identify patients accurately with ease and at low cost. We also have cures for hepatitis C, effective medications for hepatitis B, and research is ongoing for a hepatitis B cure. Effective, safe, and affordable vaccines for hepatitis B are game-changers and have dramatically reduced rates of transmission.   

A global goal

With all these tools, viral hepatitis can be eliminated. In 2016, countries were tasked with developing national plans to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of eliminating viral hepatitis by 2030. While some plans exist, they are often not supported with funding or resources, and only five countries are on target for elimination. Why do we remain apathetic to the many lives lost to hepatitis, when these deaths are entirely preventable?   

When I was diagnosed with hepatitis B in college, I was afraid to tell anybody. I went through medical school and residency only letting a few of my closest friends know. Living with an infectious disease is very different from living with a non-infectious disease, as many with COVID-19 are now experiencing. You live with guilt and self-stigma, and a constant worry that you could transmit the disease to loved ones.   

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Sharing stories

I have since learned that telling my story and the stories of others affected by hepatitis (many of whom feel they have no voice) is critical for increasing awareness, and this is a key lesson for the COVID-19 response. The stories of those impacted by COVID-19 are painfully familiar to the global hepatitis-affected community. 

Not having access to testing, feeling alone and isolated, not knowing where to go for help, and not being able to obtain potentially life-saving therapies are all barriers that resonate with us. We ache when we hear stories of people facing stigma and discrimination, because many of us hide out of that fear as well. 

These stories must be shared, and the patient voice elevated. The human impact is what compels decision makers to remove barriers to testing, care, and treatment. It is what drives development of innovations that can change the trajectory of a disease.  

While we learn lessons for combatting COVID-19, let us join together in this battle against infectious diseases. As we advocate for testing, care, and treatment for COVID-19, let us not forget that these same interventions exist for many diseases, including viral hepatitis, yet remain out of reach for many. As we witness how life-saving these can be, let us ensure these interventions reach the 325 million living with viral hepatitis among us.

What you can do  

  1. Get yourself and your loved ones tested.
  2. A simple blood test will tell you your status.  
  3. Join NOhep.org. This is the global movement to eliminate hepatitis. We need your voice to join calls for action and bring more attention to hepatitis.  
  4. Celebrate World Hepatitis Day. Raise your voice with us on July 28, so the world hears it.  
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