Tuesday, July 28th, is World Hepatitis Day – and a stark reminder of the mounting challenges posed by viral hepatitis, particularly hepatitis B and C, in Malaysia.

Viral hepatitis (especially hepatitis B and C) affects approximately 7% of the adult population in Malaysia, and within the Asian–Pacific region, it causes a million deaths every year (representing 70% of the total worldwide mortality from viral hepatitis), more than malaria, cholera or TB.

­Most people know little about viral hepatitis, and those who do often associate it with something negative.

Many do not necessarily realise that most cases of hepatitis B and C can be prevented, treated, and often even cured.

This year, the WHO included the newest hepatitis treatments in their “Model List of Essential Medicines” as a signal to governments that they should make them available to those who need them.

However, many of these treatments are prohibitively expensive. Public private partnerships involving the pharmaceutical companies developing these drugs, national governments, international donors and research institutes are gradually being tried and tested in several countries, and one can only hope that this will be the case in Malaysia as well.

Did you know that pregnant women with hepatitis B virus infection can pass on the infection to their babies? – AFP

Did you know that pregnant women with hepatitis B virus infection can pass on the infection to their babies? Photo: AFP

The lesson we learnt from HIV/AIDS is that providing access to drugs is not enough. A significant proportion of people living with viral hepatitis do not know that they are infected.

There is an urgent need to scale up on early detection of people at high risk of hepatitis B and C, and to improve the quality of life and survival for those already infected by stopping progression to serious complications of long-standing infection such as cirrhosis (liver scarring) and liver cancer.

This year, the national level World Hepatitis Day celebration will be held at the Multipurpose Hall Anak Bukit, Alor Setar, Kedah, on August 13, 2015.

The theme, “Screen, Prevent and Treat”, serves as a reminder that people at risk should get tested, strengthen measures to prevent transmission of viral hepatitis and ensure those infected with hepatitis B and C receive appropriate treatment and care.

The Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific (CEVHAP), whose aim is to achieve the elimination of viral hepatitis across the region, had as its motto “now is the time”.

As members of CEVHAP, we urge relevant stakeholders to put this motto into practice.

Now is the time to start putting into place concrete steps towards the elimination of viral hepatitis from our society.

Some of these steps will be small, some big, but all will require political commitment, smart allocation of available resources, and a better understanding of the “silent epidemic” which we talk so little about.

Professor Dr Rosmawati Mohamed is a consultant hepatologist at University Malaya Medical Centre and executive council/founding member of CEVHAP.

Professor Ding-Shinn Chen is chairman of CEVHAP from National Taiwan University.