More than a million people in low and middle-income countries have been treated with highly effective new drugs for hepatitis C, since its introduction two years ago.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that cases inflammation of the liver. It is transmitted from person to person through unscreened blood transfusions as well as contaminated needles and instruments used for tattooing and body piercing.
The disease can cause both acute and chronic hepatitis infection, ranging in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness.
Many of the chronic sufferers treated, have been completely cured said the World Health Organization-WHO on Thursday, during the launch of a report detailing results of a two-year-old programme involving new drugs known as Direct Acting Antivirals, or DAAs.
The new medicines have a cure rate of over 95 percent, and can completely cure the disease within three months. They also have fewer side effects than previously available therapies, according to Gottfried Hirnschall, the director of WHO’s HIV/Global Hepatitis Programme.
But at an initial estimated price of US$ 8500 (29 million Shillings) they were not affordable even in high-income countries.
When the antivirals were first approved in 2013, there were widespread fears that their high price would put them out of reach for the more than 80 million people with chronic hepatitis C infections worldwide. Around 700,000 people die each year from the disease globally.
Dr Gottfried observes that although access still remains beyond the reach for most people, the progress is encouraging.
A range of low- and middle-income countries are beginning to succeed in getting drugs to people who need them, through licensing agreements, local production and price negotiations. The countries include among others, Rwanda, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria.
“Licensing agreements and local production in some countries have gone a long way to make these treatments more affordable,” says Dr Suzanne Hill, WHO Director for Essential Medicines and Health Products.
For example, the price of a three-month treatment in Egypt dropped from US$ 900 (3 million Shillings) in 2014 to less than US$ 200 (684,000 Shillings) in 2016, according to a new Global Report on Access to Hepatitis C Treatment: Focus on Overcoming Barriers, released today.
In May 2016, at the World Health Assembly, 194 countries adopted the first-ever Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis, agreeing to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. The strategy includes a target to treat 80% of people in need by this date.