WHO Director-General’s opening remarks on World Hepatitis Day – 28 July 2020

28 July 2020

Your Excellency Sika Kaboré, First Lady of Burkina Faso,

Your Excellency Dr Kalumbi Shangula, Minister of Health and Social Services of Namibia, 

Your Excellency Dr Osagie Ehanire, Minister of Health of Nigeria, 

Your Excellency Amira El Fadil, African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs,

Distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity of saying a few words today.

First of all, I’d like to express my appreciation for the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS for the “Free to Shine” campaign, led by Her Excellency Madame Kaboré.

We also welcome the leadership of the African Union and its Member States in the declaration on viral hepatitis adopted last year.

Africa is home to a large hepatitis burden – but it is also home to some of the best examples of responding to hepatitis.

Last year I had the honour of visiting Egypt, where I met His Excellency President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the fight against hepatitis C.

Egypt has tested more than 60 million people, regardless of whether they are citizens or refugees, linking those who test positive to treatment free of charge.

Importantly, Egypt is not pursuing hepatitis elimination in isolation, but is linking it to other efforts to eliminate cervical cancer, screen for non-communicable diseases and make progress towards universal health coverage. 

Egypt has also expanded its support to other African countries – with the aim of advocating for and supporting hepatitis elimination in nine African countries. 

Egypt is a standout example, but it is not the only example.

Globally, we have made extraordinary progress against hepatitis in the past 5 years.

The first ever global hepatitis strategy was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2016, setting the world’s first hepatitis elimination targets.

The strategy calls for the elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030 – reducing new infections by 90% and mortality by 65%.

Even speaking about the elimination of hepatitis as a public health threat would have once seemed a fantasy. 

But new drugs and expanded access to vaccines are making it possible.

To support that goal, WHO is now supporting a global process for validating the elimination of hepatitis, just as we do for other diseases.

We are also seeing some progress with hepatitis B elimination, for example in Asia where childhood hepatitis B immunization coverage is high, including the all-important birth dose. 

Today we are celebrating more good news:

New research led by WHO and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that together we have achieved the global target set in 2000 to reduce the prevalence of hepatitis B infections in children under five years of age to less than 1% by 2020.

This landmark achievement means we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver cancer and cirrhosis in future generations.

However, progress is being hampered by low coverage of hepatitis B vaccination in some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where many newborns are still not vaccinated at birth.

Mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B remains a particular challenge.

Today, WHO is launching new guidelines for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, including through antiviral prophylaxis.

We call on countries – especially those with the highest burden – to implement these new WHO guidelines as an important stepping stone on the road to hepatitis elimination.

Make no mistake, the road is long, and we still have a long way to travel. 

Together, hepatitis B and C kill an estimated 1.3 million people globally each year.

Although we have made progress, it has been uneven.

For every country demonstrating strong commitment to hepatitis elimination, there are many others, including some with a high hepatitis burden, that haven’t moved. 

And our task has been made harder by COVID-19.

Services for prevention, testing and treatment have been disrupted, supply chains are being interrupted, limited financial and human resources are being diverted and the political focus has shifted – rightly – to containing the pandemic and economic recovery. 

All of which means there is a real risk we could lose the gains we have made.

Sustained funding, relentless advocacy and visionary political leadership will be essential for preserving those gains, and progressing towards our goal.

During these difficult times it is essential not to lose focus, to keep the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals alive.

Although the pandemic is a set back to the SDGs, we must not use it as an excuse to give up hope.

On the contrary, we must use it as motivation to redouble our efforts.

COVID-19 has illustrated that health is not a reward for development, it’s the foundation of development, and a cornerstone of economic, social and political stability. 

Universal health coverage, built on strong primary health care, is even more important now than ever.

Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you all once again for your dedication to realizing the dream of hepatitis elimination – and the dream of a healthier, safer, fairer world for everyone, everywhere.

I thank you.

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