Viral hepatitis is responsible for more premature deaths worldwide than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria.
The virus killed 1.34 million people in 2016 alone - 140,000 more than tuberculosis, 340,000 more than HIV and 621,000 more than malaria.
Alongside heart disease, road accidents and Alzheimer’s disease, viral hepatitis is one of the top ten killers in the world.
Researchers say that, in spite of advancements that have made both hepatitis B and hepatitis C much more treatable, viral hepatitis is not a high enough political priority internationally.
The study warns that the surge in viral hepatitis cases is driven in part by the opioid epidemic.
Viral hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver and related health problems. The most common types are hepatitis A, B and C.
Hepatitis A is the most mild and least common form of the virus. Hepatitis C is the most common form and a highly effective cure was discovered in 2014.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 257 million people were infected with hepatitis B in 2015. Treatments have recently been developed for chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
The new study, published by Global Health Metrics is likely the most comprehensive data set on hepatitis compiled to date.
‘Hepatitis has suffered from lack of prior and neglect,’ says Raquel Peck, CEO of the World Hepatitis Alliance, which was one of the study’s collaborators.
‘We suspected that hepatitis was a huge problem, but we didn’t have the data to validate it. Now we have a very credible study coming in and proving that his is a massive epidemic,’ she said. ‘We were horrified.’
The study analysed data collected by The Global Burden of Disease 2016 Study and analysed reported causes of death from 195 countries between 1985 and 2016.
Peck says that many of the reasons that hepatitis is so widespread have also prevented data on the virus from being collected: a ‘lack of political prioritisation, stigma,’ and the fact that it often takes a long time (up to 15 years) for hepatitis to begin to cause health problems.
‘Doctors dissuade people [from getting tested and treated]; come back in 15 years,’ Peck says. ‘There’s a lot of bias to overcome.’
She says that hepatitis C is particularly problematic in the US, where in 2013 alone, deaths caused by hepatitis C surpassed those caused by all other infectious diseases combined.
Hepatitis C spreads when infected blood from one person’s body enters another. It can be transmitted through blood transfusions and medical procedures and, most notoriously, through needle sharing.