On July 28th, the United States joins countries around the globe to observe the third annual World Hepatitis Day. One of only eight health campaigns recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), this health observance raises awareness of the silent yet growing epidemic of viral hepatitis worldwide. Each year, 1.4 million persons lose their life to viral hepatitis, similar to the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS (1.5 million), tuberculosis and malaria (1.2 million each).
Deaths from viral hepatitis are caused by one of five hepatitis viruses. Hepatitis A and hepatitis E, which are spread fecal-orally either by person-to-person contact or contaminated food or water, are major causes of acute hepatitis, particularly in areas of the developing world suffering from lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation and hygiene. A report in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing an outbreak of hepatitis E in a refugee camp in South Sudan reminds us of this often neglected disease that disproportionately kills expecting mothers in many of the poorest countries of the world (see this week’s MMWR).