National action plans needed to stop hepatitis B, WHO says

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In Asia Pacific viral hepatitis kills one person every 30 seconds. This creates a huge opportunity for vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Merck ($MRK) and others to improve public health, yet a lack of national action plans is restricting the impact of these preventative measures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has looked at the problem in a report timed to coincide with World Hepatitis Day. In the report--which contains survey results from 126 countries--WHO shows how few of the nations badly affected by hepatitis B are equipped to tackle the virus. A paper published in the journal Vaccine last year found East Asia in particular is struggling to bring hepatitis B under control. China and Mongolia both suffer from hepatitis B endemicity levels of 5% to 7% in children and adults, while Southeast Asian countries also face a high disease burden among the older group.

Most people are unaware they are carrying hepatitis viruses, and the infection can cause fatal diseases if left untreated. Hepatitis B and C cause an estimated 57% of cases of liver cirrhosis and 78% of cases of primary liver cancer. Many of these cases are preventable. "We have a vaccine for hepatitis B and new treatments for chronic hepatitis C that could save millions of lives, but none of these matter if governments fail to tackle viral hepatitis. What we need is for governments across the region to approach viral hepatitis in the same way that most have HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. This starts with the development of a national action plan," joint secretary of the Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific Stephen Locarnini told The Guardian.

Around one-third of respondents to the WHO survey already have a plan in place, and all bar one of these include a vaccine component. GSK and Merck are major players in the $700 million market, but they face competition in some Asian and African countries from Israel-based SciVac. The SciVac vaccine, Sci-B-Vac, is made up of all three native proteins of hepatitis B, compared with just one in GSK's Engerix-B. SciVac is due to start a clinical trial of Sci-B-Vac in the U.S. to generate data for a submission to FDA, Reuters reports. Dynavax ($DVAX) is also trying to bring a hepatitis B vaccine to market in the U.S., but an FDA rejection and a request for more data set its plans back.

- here's the Guardian article
- view the Vaccine abstract
- check out the WHO report
- read the Reuters item

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