Earlier this week I highlighted the prohibitively expensive cost of hepatitis C treatment and urged the manufacturers of these lifesaving medicines to substantially drop prices as a first but critical step toward increasing access to treatment for the millions of people living with this disease worldwide.
Today is the first official World Hepatitis Day, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO). In a video message on the WHO website marking the occasion, Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, outlines the agency’s commitment to developing a comprehensive strategy to tackle viral hepatitis, in accordance with the 63rd World Health Assembly resolution on viral hepatitis [pdf].
In the video, Dr. Chan accurately mentions the importance of raising awareness, getting tested, and various ways to prevent transmission, including vaccination (available for hepatitis A, B, D, and soon E). What is not mentioned, however, is the urgent need to ensure access to life-saving treatment for people infected, in particular for those living with hepatitis C. While this oversight is undoubtedly related to the prohibitively high price of available treatments, one would have expected a more courageous message from the WHO, including, for instance, a commitment to ensure that affordable treatment is available soon.
Civil society groups have been waiting for just that commitment. In March, more than 140 organizations and individuals—including global, regional, and national networks of most-affected groups, like people living with HIV and people who use drugs—wrote a letter [pdf] to Chan demanding what they felt were the necessary steps “for an effective launch and scale up of treatment for those in need under the leadership of the WHO.” The suggested actions included specifically facilitating the “production of quality generic versions of medicines for hepatitis C treatment.”
To date, neither Chan nor the WHO has responded. This period of silence has not gone unnoticed. Yesterday, the letter’s authors took the bold move of resending the letter, in hope that this time around their plea for WHO leadership on hepatitis C treatment will not be ignored.
The battle for improved hepatitis C treatment access is also ongoing at national levels, and will be particularly pronounced today. In Thailand, Georgia, Ukraine, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam civil society groups are organizing hepatitis C awareness activities like rallies and media campaigns, and relentlessly advocating their governments adopt national commitments. We will continue to feature their efforts, and hope to increase the number of voices in the fight for improved access to affordable hepatitis C treatment.