World Hepatitis Day: WHO praises China’s vaccination success, but calls for more progress on improving access to treatment

News release

On this year’s World Hepatitis Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) applauds China for its remarkable success in reducing hepatitis B infections in children aged under 15 years. At the same time, WHO calls for more progress in strengthening access to treatment for people living with chronic hepatitis B and C in China.

Viral hepatitis is a serious public health threat globally. It is the world’s leading cause of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. With around 90 million people living with chronic hepatitis B, and 10 million people living with hepatitis C in China – China is home to 25% of the world’s chronic viral hepatitis cases.

Hepatitis B vaccination: a public health success story

“New data released this week show that less than 1% of under 15 year olds in China are infected with hepatitis B. This makes the current generation of Chinese children the first to be almost completely hepatitis B-free,” said Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO Representative in China.

According to survey results from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of chronic hepatitis B infection among children aged under 15 years of age decreased from 10% in 1992, to less than 1% currently – a reduction of over 90%.

“Slashing the rate of hepatitis B infection in children means China has drastically reduced this generation’s chances of developing conditions like cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer later in life. This is an extraordinary public health success story,” Dr Schwartländer said.

The vaccination program uses a dose of hepatitis B vaccine during the first day of life, followed by two more doses during infancy, to provide lifelong protection from hepatitis B infection.

The next agenda for China: strengthening access to treatment

While China has achieved remarkable success in almost eliminating hepatitis B among children through vaccination, there are still an estimated 100 million adults living with hepatitis B or C in China – tens of millions of whom urgently need treatment, but cannot access it currently.

“We would now like to see the same determined, evidence-based, public health approach which created China’s highly successful hepatitis B vaccination program brought to bear on the pressing issue of access to treatment for the millions of Chinese adults who need it,” said Dr Schwartländer.

Without treatment, up to 3 out of 10 people who become chronically infected may develop serious, life-threatening illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Liver cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in Chinese males, and one of the top five most common cancers in females. Chronic hepatitis infection leads to more than 380,000 cancer-related deaths in China each year.

Hepatitis C is curable with the right drugs, but these drugs are not available in China currently because of lengthy registration and approval processes. The existing available treatments are much less effective, more costly, require multiple injections, and result in more side effects. There are 2.5 million people considered in priority need of treatment for hepatitis C because of probable advanced liver disease and high risk of liver cancer.

Although chronic hepatitis B cannot be cured currently, effective treatment is available that prevents progression to cirrhosis and liver cancer. However, drugs for treating hepatitis B are currently much more expensive than identical drugs used for the treatment of people living with HIV under China’s very effective public health programme. Further, hepatitis treatment is not always reimbursable under health insurance. This means hepatitis B treatment is unaffordable, and thus inaccessible, for many people. There are an estimated 28 million people in need of treatment for hepatitis B in China – 7 million of whom are high priority because they already have advanced liver disease.

“Investing in a public health approach to hepatitis treatment – that is, making treatment available to all who need it through a public subsidy scheme, on an equitable basis – will result in many cancer cases averted, deaths avoided, and significant costs saved for both society and the Government. In other words, it is cheaper to treat than not to treat,” Dr Schwartländer said.

“There is also an urgent need to make drugs which cure hepatitis C available and affordable in China. Drug registration and approval processes must be accelerated so people in China are not missing out on the best treatments for hepatitis that are now available in other parts of the world,” Dr Schwartländer added.

Beating stigma and discrimination

The WHO is also using this year’s World Hepatitis Day to call for more action to overcome stigma and discrimination towards people living with hepatitis.

“Far too many people living with this disease still experience stigma and discrimination – with often very damaging, and sometimes tragic, consequences,” Dr Schwartländer said.

“Stigma is borne from misinformation and fear. But just as hepatitis can be treated with drugs, stigma towards people with hepatitis can be treated with facts and information,” Dr Schwartländer explained.

“One in every 14 people in China is living with hepatitis. If you’re not one of them, chances are you know someone who is. We want to use this year’s World Hepatitis Day to beat the fear and misinformation that is too often associated with this disease,” Dr Schwartländer concluded.

Note to editors

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D and E). Hepatitis A and E viruses can be transmitted through contaminated food or water; and hepatitis B, C and D viruses are transmitted through blood and blood products, sexual transmission, and from an infected mother to her newborn.

The WHO marks World Hepatitis Day on 28 July each year. For more information on hepatitis and World Hepatitis Day:

About the World Health Organization

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

For more information please contact

Ms Liu Shujun
WHO China Office
Office Tel: +86 10 6532 7191