On September 20 in New York City, heads of state, ministers of health, civil society organizations and partners seeking global solidarity in the fight against viral hepatitis gathered in a side-event to the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly to call for the formation of a U.N. Group of Friends to eliminate the disease. The Task Force for Global Health’s Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination (CGHE) convened the meeting to advance efforts to achieve the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of a 90% reduction in new infections by 2030.
Viral hepatitis is one of the world’s deadliest diseases and it is on the rise. More people die from hepatitis-related illness than from HIV, malaria or tuberculosis. A recent report predicts that by 2040 diagnoses and deaths from liver cancer will rise by 55%, driven largely by unchecked spread of viral hepatitis.
Over 350 million people live with hepatitis around the world, but more than 80% of them don’t have access to treatment. Effective vaccines and treatments exist but they are not reaching the people most in need, particularly in Africa, which carried 26% of the global burden of viral hepatitis in 2020. Only by scaling up efforts to vaccinate newborns, and increasing testing and treatment to identify people who are infected but don’t know, will global elimination be achievable.
“We truly are at a miraculous moment that rarely occurs in the history of medicine and public health, when you have large scientific breakthroughs that create opportunities to eliminate disease. We certainly have that for hepatitis,” said CGHE Director Dr. John Ward.
Dr. Michael Houghton, one of three scientists recently awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering the Hepatitis C virus, announced his support for the initiative at the New York Group of Friends event.
“With recent developments in diagnosis, treatment and vaccines, it is now within our grasp to meet the WHO’s challenge of eliminating hepatitis as a major public health threat by the end of this decade,” said Dr. Houghton.
Dr. Houghton was joined by his fellow Nobel laureate, Dr. Harvey Alter, along with representatives from 22 countries and nine partner organizations who spoke at the event in support of global cooperation to fight viral hepatitis. Official country representatives from Chile, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Ukraine endorsed the idea of a Group of Friends. Similar support was voiced by government-affiliated academic representatives from China and Japan.
The Group of Friends will unite Member States around hepatitis as an issue of concern, provide a forum to share innovations and lessons learned, and encourage cooperation between states. The Group of Friends will also seek to build political will within the UN system, along with multinational and multilateral partners, to promote equitable access to hepatitis treatment, prevention and care.
In Africa, where viral hepatitis is rapidly becoming more of a threat than HIV or malaria, more than 90% of people living with the disease lack access to care. Dr. Anthony Nsiah-Asare, Advisor on Health to the president of Ghana, was one of the first to speak at the event.
“To address these health inequities by accelerating progress toward the U.N. and WHO goals for hepatitis elimination, Ghana calls for the formation of a U.N. Group of Friends to Eliminate Hepatitis,” said Dr. Nsiah-Asare.
Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, Acting Director of CDC Africa, echoed the call. He paraphrased Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in his speech: “When we gather in the village square, and we want to watch the moon, it is not because we can’t see the moon from our own home. It is because it is good to come together.” Dr. Ouma continued: “Today it is really good to come together to speak about how to eliminate hepatitis from the world.”
Ouma then praised the accomplishments of Egypt, whose focus on elimination is an inspiration for the group. Less than a decade ago, Egypt led the world in hepatitis C infections. Today, it has almost completely eliminated the disease as a result of a massive national program to screen almost the entire adult population and treat those infected.
Egypt announced a partnership with Ghana, through which Egypt will give Ghana medicine to treat 50,000 people for hepatitis, as an example of the kind of health diplomacy that will be required to achieve worldwide elimination. (Photo at the top of the story shows Egypt and Ghana representatives making this announcement at the event).
Dr. Liang Xiaofeng, Vice-President of the Chinese Preventative Medicine Association, also spoke in favor of forming the group.
“We will strongly support forming a Group of Friends for Hepatitis elimination. We hope the group will be launched successfully, and the WHO 2030 hepatitis elimination goal will be achieved,” said Dr. Xiaofeng.
As a next step, the countries intend to finalize the Group of Friends governance and goals. Egypt has offered to chair the Group.
“The formation of this group is a glimmer of hope,” said Egypt’s Minister of Health Khaled Abdel Ghaffar. “We are ready to help all countries that suffer the threat of hepatitis.”
CGHE will support the officials to lead discussions with interested Member States, finalize the Group of Friends Charter and identify priority activities.
A recording of the event is available here: https://www.globalhep.org/webinars/solidarity-hepatitis-elimination-call-un-group-friends
For more information on CGHE’s programs and efforts to eliminate hepatitis, visit https://www.globalhep.org/
Photos courtesy of Sarah Merians Photography and the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination
Monica Fambrough, Communications Manager for the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination