On the occasion of World Hepatitis Day (July 28), millions of people living with hepatitis C virus (HCV) and their advocates—Médecins du Monde (MdM), the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), Treatment Action Group (TAG), the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (APN+), the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), and Act Up-Basel—have issued a petition signed by thousands of people from 121 countries calling on Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), to act urgently to increase global access to hepatitis C prevention tools, diagnostics, and treatment.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a widespread—and deadly—threat to global public health, although it can be prevented and cured. An estimated 185 million people have been infected with HCV, and each year, three to four million more become infected. Because HCV is bloodborne, it is common among people who inject drugs (PWID); at least 10 million of the world’s 16 million PWID have HCV. Lack of access to sterile injection equipment keeps fueling the epidemic: 90 percent of new HCV infections are attributed to the sharing of used injection equipment.
Since 2010, more than 1 million people have died from HCV, though it can be cured. New HCV drugs coming out of the pipeline have demonstrated cure rates of up to 100 percent. Hepatitis C could feasibly be eradicated from the planet. Yet, globally, few people know their status, have access to treatment, or have the information and tools necessary to prevent transmission. Unnecessary illness and death continue unabated and the epidemic keeps spreading, unchecked.
The WHO has called hepatitis C a “viral time bomb,” yet has done little to significantly address this global health crisis. Access to prevention tools, diagnostics, and treatment remains extremely limited, particularly for people who inject drugs, a group disproportionately affected by HCV. This lack of access is a public health failure of epic proportions.
Therefore, on the eve of World Hepatitis Day, we ask Dr. Chan to demonstrate forceful leadership by mobilizing political will and the necessary resources to combat the global HCV epidemic.
The WHO must act to increase global access to HCV diagnostics and treatment by:
– Advocating for rights-based harm reduction;
– Establishing a prequalification process for alternative and biosimilar pegylated interferon products;
– Monitoring the quality of, and increasing access to, HCV diagnostics;
– Prioritizing and expediting the addition of HCV direct-acting antivirals to the WHO Essential Medicines List, to create access to affordable, high-quality, safe, and effective HCV treatment;
– Providing technical support to countries to increase their capacity to deliver HCV care and treatment; and
– Creating clear guidance on HCV screening and testing that explicitly recommends screening for people living with HIV, in whom HCV progresses rapidly, and for people who inject drugs.
Many countries are prepared to address their HCV epidemics and are waiting for WHO guidance in key areas that will empower us all to move forward and end the cycle of unnecessary HCV-related illness and death.