Europe needs to fight harder against hepatitis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Viral hepatitis belongs to the group of the top 10 infectious disease killers in Europe with 125,000 patients who die each year. Despite its considerable impact, it receives too little attention by health policymakers although small efforts could already yield major improvements, says MEP Marina Yannakoudakis.

Marina Yannakoudakis is a member of the European Parliament for the United Kingdom (European Conservatives and Reformists Group).

A problem only outside Europe, this is what most Europeans associate with hepatitis. The assumption could hardly be less correct. Viral hepatitis concerns everybody: 23 Million patients or one in 22 citizens in Europe suffer from chronic viral hepatitis type B or C.

This makes the disease part of the group of the top ten infectious disease killers and the leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis. Some 125,000 patients die each year because of such hepatitis-related diseases.

Despite its considerable impact, prevention, screening and treatment receive too little attention by health policy makers. And yet, already limited efforts can yield huge improvements.

For example, there are deficits in population screening almost across all of Europe, as a recent comparative survey has revealed. Since only a minority of patients actually develops symptoms such as jaundice, this means that a large proportion of infections will be detected late. Thus, it is more likely that patients will unknowingly pass on the virus and they run a considerable risk of developing secondary damages, in the worst case liver failure, cirrhosis and cancer.

In some countries, deficits in preventive measures, such as vaccination of children or major risk groups like health care workers, drug users or people living with people who are infected with Hepatitis B also contribute to the proliferation of the virus.

Both fields provide ample opportunities for politicians to nudge things to the better. Exchanging best practice between member states on these issues as well as on how to better raise awareness would help tackle the disease across the continent.

Furthermore, there is a lack of sound data on hepatitis. Data gathering should be shared where possible to improve the understanding of infection paths and risk groups.

France is until today the only EU member which has developed and implemented a national plan on hepatitis. It is thus not a huge surprise that France scores well in the study. A similar initiative exists in Scotland. Bulgaria, Germany and Croatia have taken first steps to develop and implement such plans. The experiences are promising, but more serious efforts will be necessary.

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